Review of August Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
a play by August Wilson
Produced and directed by
Performed by the Lower Bottom Playaz
at the Prescott Joseph Center
review by Marvin X
Down in the heart of West Oakland, in the so called lower bottom of the once Harlem of the West that was the end of the intercontinental railroad, there exists a group of thespians lead by a woman who can only be described as a precious jewel. What better person to inhabit the Thea Bowman Theatre in a former convent house?
As a member of the West Oakland Renaissance Committee/Elders Council, I am so proud to announce the work of this Renaissance Woman, producer, director, actress and now singer. After seeing her production of August Wilson's (RIP) classic Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, we are totally convinced Ayo is the artistic queen of West Oakland. Her performance as Ma Rainey is significant enough but the overall production is a statement that West Oakland still maintains a high level of artistic excellence.
Ayo's playaz are celebrating their eleventh season at the Thea Bowman Theatre and lately she has been performing the works of August Wilson, determined to produce his entire cycle of plays on our experience in the wilderness of North America. Her production of Joe Turner's Come and Gone was riveting and we can't wait to see how she interprets the upcoming Piano Lesson.
Last night's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom was powerful. The language of Wilson reminded me of my own. Two of my daughter's witnessed last night's performance. Nefertiti thought Ayo had taken liberty with the script (as she is known to do, especially with the Bard of Avon--she rewrote a few of his works using Ebonics), but when Nefertiti questioned her after the show, Ayo said no, she was true to the script. And yet as I listened to the language and rhythms, Wilson did remind me of my writing style. But we know the language is nothing personal but the communal speech of North American Africans, and we know there is a unity in our linguistics, a basic unity no matter what region.
The most powerful lines that rocked my world came from the character who gave us a monologue on God. In his truthfulness, Wilson showed us the despair of living under the cross and lynching tree as Rev. James Cone put it in a conversation with Bill Moyers on PBS. In fact, the entire play concerned itself with life in racist America, especially the condition of exploited artists--surely every rapper must see this play to understand how long this has been going on. But even the common person must one day confront the reality of the myriad issues Wilson presented. One of his multiple stories revealed the level of self hate and ignorance that is still a part of our culture. Remember when a nigguh could get shot for stepping on another man's shoes? Wilson's recount of this myth-ritual was heart breaking.
Having had Ayo as my drama student at Laney College in 1981, (In the Name of Love, and later she directed my One Day in the Life, 1997), we have seen her grow and grow and grow. And for the last decade we have seen her Lower Bottom Playza develop into a wonderful ensemble of dramatists and every one of them must be congratulated, several of whom are her own children who work the stage and the tech booth.
The entire cast was outstanding, especially Slow Drag (Adimu Madyun), Cutler (Chauncey Nunn),
Toledo (Stanley Thomas Hunt, II), Levee (Koran Streets), Dussie Mae (Niko Buchanan), Irvin
(David Reynolds), and Sturdyvant (Loren Churchill). Of course, Ayo was phenomenal as Ma Rainey, a part that seemed to be written for Ayo, a diva in her own right. Yes, it was a play within a play to see Ayo as Ma Rainey.
With the Lower Bottom Playaz, the glory days of West Oakland have returned. Everyone from West Oakland must make their way to 10th and Peralta to see the work of the Lower Bottom Playaz at the Prescott Joseph Center. The entire Bay Area must support the work Ayo is doing, it is most certainly bringing a new birth to West Oakland.