Blues for Whoopi’s Ma Rainey: Broadway Revival Haunted By Past

There are three different shows within the current Broadway revival of August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom , and none of them, sad to report, is the great blues drama itself.

Call the first show “The Offstage Show,” which is all about the trouble publicly associated with the production-including Charles S. Dutton’s damaging declaration that he believes “the definitive production” of Ma Rainey took place in 1984. That was when Mr. Wilson’s play first broke through and Mr. Dutton made his name playing the same gigantic role of the ambitious blues musician, Levee, in the original watershed production. In plaintive search of his younger self and the defining moment of his life, the actor seems to have learned you can’t go home again, that’s all. But, almost 20 years on, the hurt and confusion are there just the same.

Theater gossip about pre-opening-night hysteria is usually identified with Broadway musicals, however, and it’s best ignored. (Musicals are always hysterical). But three actors are said to have left the Ma Rainey cast early in rehearsals, and we have a very uncomfortable feeling that the bad blood behind the scenes has spilled onstage. For one absolutely central thing, a sense of true ensemble work just isn’t gelling. Some of the performers appear under-rehearsed by the director, Marion McClinton. It’s like a potentially fine blues band that isn’t yet in tune and even one that has lost the melody, which now grows faint and careless.

There are compensatory high points, and one of them is the restrained, calm excellence of Stephen McKinley Henderson’s bass player, Slow Drag. We last saw this exemplary actor in Mr. Wilson’s King Hedley ll and Jitney , and no matter who he’s playing, Mr. Henderson always seems utterly, mysteriously at home . But I must say with exasperation that Whoopi Goldberg only depresses us with her slack, token portrait of the white-hating diva, Ma Rainey. Ms. Goldberg is also a producer of the show. Perhaps without her there wouldn’t be a show at all. But does that mean all she has to do is turn up? “The Whoopi Goldberg Show” isn’t relevant here. What experience-as a straight actress-does the lady actually possess? The role of the forbidding Ma Rainey requires a bona fide blues belter, and Ms. Goldberg’s singing isn’t up to the task. More to the point, the star smugly settles for a quite amiable impersonation of the quite monstrous Ma Rainey as if she’s having a bad, finger-wagging day on the set of Hollywood Squares .

Her voice ought to be a percussion of hurt, and the play itself a tumultuous dialogue with America. Here’s the authentic, discordant protest of Mr. Wilson’s Ma Rainey, speaking of white exploitation and hypocrisy: “As soon as they get my voice down on them recording machines, then it’s just like I’d be some whore and they roll over and put their pants on. Ain’t got no use for me then. I know what I’m talking about. You watch.”

And here’s another character, Toledo-the pianist-philosopher and the only jazzman in the group who can read-on the subject of black compromise: “See, we’re the leftovers. The colored man is the leftovers … The problem ain’t with the white man. The white man knows you just a leftover. ‘Cause he the one who done the eating and he know what he done ate. But we don’t know that we been took and made history out of.”

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom takes place in a recording studio in 1920’s Chicago, where Ma Rainey herself-the “Mother of the Blues,” as she was called-has come to record several songs. Mr. Wilson’s drama possesses good humor and warmth, but its tragic, furious beat speaks unflinchingly to us about African-Americans strangled and defined by white society. The play, the first of Mr. Wilson’s indelible chronicles of the black American century, is itself a blues lament told with unruly passion, without redress.

The dramatist has prospered since his debut in the 1980’s, and yet his work is still defined according to the stature of white dramatists. “As both an individual playwright and a hub of theatrical activity,” went a recent Times tribute to Mr. Wilson’s contribution, “he has defined his time in the way Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, Neil Simon and Edward Albee defined the three preceding generations.” (Edward Albee and Neil Simon?!) Apart from a narrative tradition, Mr. Wilson has nothing in common with any of them. He rarely goes to the theater. (Who can blame him?) Chances are he hasn’t read much of the Western canon, either. Its cultural tradition isn’t his.

The tradition that came to fruition with Ma Rainey is surely rooted in the specific black American heritage born in slavery, in racism and forbearance, in the community of barroom storytellers the dramatist first rejoiced in as a rebellious youngster wanting to be a poet, and in the embracing prayer of the blues song’s immortal refrain and torment.

The blues, as Ma Rainey defines them, are “life’s way of talking.” And talking cauterizes wounds. But not always. The closing Act I speech by the trumpet player Levee tells its own devastating story. Levee, anxious for a break as a composer of his own blues songs, plays Uncle Tom to the white record producer who will betray him. “Yessuh!” his friends mock him. “He’s like all of us. Spooked up with the white men.” But he talks back with anger. “Levee got to be Levee! And he don’t need nobody messing with him about the white man-’cause you don’t know nothing about me. You don’t know Levee. You don’t know nothing about what blood I got! What kind of heart I got beating here!”

And so, as the audience is brought to the kind of silence you can hear, he tells how, when he was 8 years old, he witnessed a gang of eight or nine white men rape his mother when his father was away. He was cut badly fighting them off her. His father had scraped together enough money to buy his land, but he then sold it to one of the men who raped his wife and smiled in his face. The father disappeared and subsequently killed four of them before they got him.

“They tracked him down in the woods,” Levee relates, “caught up with him and hung him and set him afire …. My daddy wasn’t spooked by the white man. No sir! And that taught me how to handle them.”

And in a crushing blow that brings the curtain down on the first act, Slow Drag plays his bass and sings his measured mantra of despair:

If I had my way

If I had my way

If I had my way

I would tear this old building down.

Nothing can mute that shattering climax. But returning to the role of the horn player who’s still young enough to have blind faith in some kind of future, Mr. Dutton in late middle age has sentimentalized Levee. He plays him too broadly, as if grasping too hard at a memory. The blistering Act II confrontation with God, in which language itself is as meaningless as Levee’s life, becomes a shouting match, a declamatory showpiece. Mr. Dutton took over the direction of the production at the eleventh hour when, to add to everyone’s woes, the director fell ill in the final crucial days of rehearsal. He stepped into the breach, but no actor ought to direct himself. You may as well let elephants loose at the circus.

“The Charles S. Dutton Show” ends on a strangely Shakespearean note. The actor announced in Playbill that, after over a decade of effort and desire to mount a revival of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom , this is his farewell performance. “I have done the theatre some service, and they know it …,” he says. “No more of that!”

It’s an adaptation of Othello’s farewell speech, of course, before he kills himself. (Heaven forbid!)

Soft you; a word or two before you go.

I have done the state some service, and they know’t;-

No more of that. I pray you, in your letters

When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,

Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate,

Nor set down aught in malice ….

To love-not wisely, but too well-is the cause of Mr. Dutton’s distress. He jealously guarded the cherished memory of Ma Rainey too much. But the song within August Wilson’s drama will always be sung. One day, we’ll hear it.