Karamu’s ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ strikes the right chord





In recent months the big story in the news has been CRT or Critical Race Theory. As described by Professor Mari Matsuda who teaches at the University of Hawaii and was an early proponent of CRT, “Critical race theory is a method that takes the lived experience of racism seriously, using history and social reality to explain how racism operates in America law and culture, toward the end of eliminating the harmful effects of racism and bringing about a just a healthy world for all.”

The reason for bringing this up during the review of August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” now on stage at Karamu House is that quite simply this dramatic play is the perfect vehicle to explain “how racism operates in America.” During this play we hear stories of rape, lynching, murder, intimidation and suppression as well as see live examples of racial profiling, white supremacy, black on black crime and white over black control.

“Ma Rainey” is part of a series of ten plays that are known as “The Pittsburgh Cycle” which focus on the life experiences and history of Black America during the 20th century.

It is 1920 and the Roaring 20’s and Jazz Age are in full swing. Black families have left behind the poverty and hardship of the South and “immigrated” to the Northern cities in order to find a higher standard of living, personal autonomy and less discrimination. It is a time that Federal legislation is restricting the number of foreign immigrants allowed into the country thus opening up opportunities for Black communities to form. This period of opportunity for Blacks allowed for more disposable income that financed a boom in Black Jazz recordings. The problem was the fact that the recording industry was mostly controlled by white bosses.

Ma Rainey (Christina Johnson) has brought her touring band and entourage, nephew Sylvester (Cyril Amanfo) and girl friend Dussie Mae (De’aja Mon’e) to Chicago in order to record a selection of old favorites. Tensions are high as she arrives late with a soon to be bribed policeman (Jesse DeFranco) following a traffic accident and alleged assault. She comes to the studio with a list of demands that sends her white manager (Ro Miller) and white recording studio owner Sturdyvant (Marc Moritz) into a tail spin.

She wants her stuttering nephew to introduce the featured song no matter how many takes it requires. She wants to do the songs in the old style that she is familiar with. She wants them to turn up the heat in the studio and lastly she wants some Coco Cola...NOW. One by one the bosses grudgingly grant her requests even though it is costing money in delays and recording time.

While these negotiations are going on in the studio, the band is sequestered in the practice room. As they while away the time drinking, eating, smoking gage (marijuana), playing cards and arguing they even manage to get a little practice done on songs that they have played thousands of times.

There is conflict among the musicians primarily caused by the brash young trumpet player, Levee (Jaris Owens), who dreams of forming his own band and recording his songs the way he wants them to sound. His is the new style of Jazz that will soon cross over from the predominately black audiences to the newly affluent white population. He is also a devout Atheist who challenges God to “strike him down where he stands!”

This does not sit well with the other band members, especially the leader and trombone player, Cutler (Cornell Hubert Calhoun III) who is old school with old values that includes a subservient stance to his white bosses. Toledo (Justin Emeka) is the educated piano player who is a voracious reader and philosopher of the group and who uses logic to argue against Levee’s rages. Slow Drag (Darryl Tatum) is the busy peace maker just trying to get everyone through this gig in one piece.

After a number of delays the group finally assembles in the recording studio and the pent up energy explodes as joyful Jazz but in spite of an outstanding recording session, tragedy soon awaits.

As for the performance it is exceptional. Everyone gives a standout representation of their parts. It is a very believable play. Special note goes to Christina Johnson as Ma Rainey for her strong no nonsense manner and powerful singing voice. Veteran actor Cornell Hubert Calhoun III as Cutler shows an amazing collection of emotions ranging from humor to rage to despair. Lastly, there is Jaris Owens on whose performance the entire production swings. Here is a young man tired of the tradition of prejudice who has ideas on how to fight back but goes about it the wrong way. The stage set by Richard H. Morris Jr. and costumes by Inda Blatch-Geib are period authentic which adds to the authenticity.

For any educator wishing to explain the concept of Critical Race Theory they need go no further than to share the production of August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” It is a microcosm of the American Black experience in the 20’s and for that matter much of history. The Karamu production of this epic play captures all of the tension, spirit and tragedy as originally intended.

This is an adult production with the use of language and racial slurs in abundance. Leave the kids at home for this one.

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” will be on stage at Karamu, 2355 East 89th Street, Cleveland, Ohio through October 31, 2021. For tickets and more information go to www.karamuhouse.org or call (216) 795-7070.

Covid vaccination cards or proof of negative testing within 72 hours are required for entrance as well as a temperature check. Masks are required the entire time while in the theater complex.

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Who is Mark Horning?

Over the course of my life I have worked a variety of jobs including newspapers, retail camera sales and photography. Eight years ago I embarked on yet another career as writer. This included articles concerning sports and cultural events in Cleveland, Ohio as well reviews of the many theatrical productions around town. These days are spent photographing professional dance groups, theater companies and various galas and festivals as well as attending various stage performances and posting reviews about them.