In his ongoing cycle of plays chronicling the struggles of African Americans during each decade of the last century, August Wilson has imbued everyday experience with the depth and gravitas of classical tragedy. "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," the first in the series (and Wilson's first work to appear on Broadway), explores the tortured void of racial identity and powerlessness confronting a band of black backup musicians in the 1920s.
Director Claude Purdy's handsomely staged revival at Hollywood's Lillian Theatre sports solid lead performances, though some awkward timing misses some of Wilson's finer-pitched nuances.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday February 21, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Actor's name -- In the Feb. 13 Calendar section, a review of the play "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," at the Lillian Theatre, mistakenly used a character's name, Mel Sturdyvant, in place of the actor's name. The character is played by Joseph Ruskin.
The production's high point is its assured turn by feisty Loretta Devine in the title role of the legendary singer often credited as the "mother of the blues." In the outside world, Ma Rainey may have to endure the same oppression and discrimination facing blacks throughout the country, but in a white-owned recording studio (a wonderfully dilapidated scenic environment by Joel Daavid) she lords it over her obsequious manager (Alan Naggar) and the exasperated studio owner (Mel Sturdyvant). It is precisely the limited boundaries of her control that compel Ma to assert it so obstinately, and Devine leaves no doubt that her tantrums are born not of ego but a hunger for payback.
Russell Andrews' Levee Green smolders as the tormented trumpet player who "eats bad luck for breakfast." His bandmates (James Avery, Thomas Martell Brimm, Bill Lee Brown) are merely entertainers, but Levee aspires to be a serious musician, setting himself up for devastating consequences in a society that was not yet ready to allow blacks even that level of fulfillment.
The limitation of letting the band mime its performances to canned music is all the more apparent in this intimate venue, but once Devine's Ma Rainey starts belting out her songs, there's no mistaking the authenticity.
-- Philip Brandes
"Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," Lillian Theatre, 1076 Lillian Way, Hollywood. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Ends March 7. $25. (323) 960-7735. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.
Muscling through corporate world
In "Resignation," Terry Everett Brown's solo show at Actors Art Theatre, a vibrant assortment of characters festoons a fraying string of plot.
Subtitled "My Journey Through the Corporate World and How I Escaped," the piece, co-written by the show's director, Jolene Adams, concerns Brown's frustrating experiences working for big business. Youthful and buff, Brown is hardly the man in the gray flannel suit. In fact, we wonder just how long Brown actually suffered in the corporate ranks before making a muscular dash for freedom.
Manically energetic, Brown personifies dozens of characters during this short outing, and his comic creations are well-delineated and fully fleshed.
However, as far as the actual story goes, telling details are in short supply. We know Brown quit corporate life but are unclear what he does for a living now. (He mentions a Web address at the end of the show and suggests we "check it out.") We also gather that Brown did a stint in the White House press office during his freshman year (of, we suppose, college), but what president was in office at the time is initially unclear.
What is clear is that Brown took a business degree and was recruited by a big banking concern, where he collected "huge paychecks." Transferred to Milan, Brown nightclubbed every night and had a torrid love affair. He then transferred to Los Angeles, where he worked for a boss he loved.
Is your heart bleeding for him yet? The generic complaints about bureaucracy, printer jams and paperwork cited here hardly account for this level of acute misery. Brown needs to more fully explain compelling reasons for his corporate disenchantment. Otherwise, especially in this era of economic downsizing, outsourcing and actual tribulation, his grievances smack of mere petulance.
-- F. Kathleen Foley
"Resignation," Actors Art Theatre, 6128 Wilshire Blvd. #110, Los Angeles. Wednesdays only, 8 p.m. Ends March 31. $12. (323) 969-4953. Running time: 1 hour.
Two cultures, one performer
Stephen Legawiec's new play, "Peru in Africa," continues the Ziggurat Theatre founder's exploration of psychological and mythological themes in diverse cultures -- in this case, through an Oxford-educated schoolteacher's spiritual odyssey among the pygmies of the African Congo.
Written for and starring the versatile, engaging Marianna Harris, this stylish and often poetic solo-performer piece receives a promising debut production from Venice Theatre Works, although a few rough edges warrant revisiting.
The title character, Mary Peru, arrives at her sister's deserted London art studio, having just returned from her African adventure. Amid the neo-primitive sculpted pillars in Trefoni Michael Rizzi's exotic set, Mary recalls her trip as she rifles through a steamer trunk full of her scribbled notes.