Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast
The play is not strongly plot driven; it is mostly about the lives of its characters. Four musicians hired to accompany the title character as she makes records in a Chicago recording studio reveal what life is like for black men in 1920s America, and how it affects them. Ma Rainey enters midway through the first act, a blues shouting prima donna who is not happy with how the studio owner, Sturdyvant, is treating her and her entourage.
WBTT's production is brilliant in every way. All four of the musicians are cast with visiting performers: Henri Watkins from Chicago as Toledo, the mature father figure; Kenny Dozier from Nashville as Cutler; Patric Robinson from all over Florida, New York, and Pennsylvania as Slow Drag; and Robert Douglas, returning to WBTT after a stunning debut in The Whipping Man two years ago, as young Levee, who wants to be a composer and band leader. These four characters get a large percentage of the stage time and it is important to feel the history among them. A local production a few years ago was weak in this area; Chuck Cooper's direction vividly brings these scenes to life.
Tarra Conner jones inhabits the title role and it fits her like a glove. She is an exceptional singer, as she has proven in several previous WBTT productions, which makes playing a legendary blues singer (based on a real person) easier. Terry Wells capably plays Sturdyvant, while Stephen Emery plays Irvin, Ma's put upon manager. Neither character is all that well written; white characters were never August Wilson's strong point. Earley Dean stretches himself as Sylvester, Ma's stuttering nephew. Emerald Rose Sullivan plays Dussie Mae, Ma's companion and little more than a walk on role, but she looks lovely, and has proven her talents in previous productions. David Abolafia has a cameo role as a policeman.
Michael Newton-Brown has contributed a set that defines a three-story recording studio, Cristy Owen has designed proper period attire for all, and lighting design by Eric Furbish works well to focus the action. The regular WBTT staff does their usual extraordinary work to make this such a fine production.
I would like to call your attention to two upcoming special events offered by Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe: on February 8 there will be a presentation about The Florida Highwaymen and on February 14 a discussion about August Wilson with participation by artists who worked with him. Check the website for more information.
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, presented by Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, through February 21, 2016, at 1646 Nate Jacobs Way, Sarasota, Florida, 366-1505. For more information, visit westcoastblacktheatre.org.
Cast (in order of appearance):
Director: Check Smith**