Race Records

Survival's the Tune, and August Wilson's Plays Sing It

Full of arrhythmic hitches and strangely upside-down emotional choices, Marion McClinton's production suggests a mass of unfulfilled intentions. It has, in addition, some crudities it would do better without: The white characters never do anything but scream at each other; Toledo, being cerebral, is played as prissily pedantic; Sylvester's stutter is played so broadly it looks more like brain damage. And Whoopi Goldberg's performance as Ma, which many ticket buyers will undoubtedly expect to be the evening's centerpiece, is a portrait of an altogether more sedate and gentler person from another era, possibly a nurse or social worker with a pleasant gift for light singing. But these shortcomings, which would be fatal to a lesser play, can hardly put a dent in a work of Ma Rainey's bigness and substance. The action is the talk, and the talk is pellucid; the focus is less on Ma and her managerial troubles than on the internal debates of the band. And here, if one grants Thomas Jefferson Byrd a little leeway to make Toledo pedagogical, some acting of a spectacular quality is going on. Cutler, who rarely raises his voice and only once opens up in Wilsonian monologue, is a marvelous multihued role, containing practically everything that can be done with quietude on the stage; Carl Gordon, who ranks with the best Cutlers I've seen, catches all its fleeting nuances without even seeming to try. Stephen McKinley Henderson is as convincing playing Slow Drag, a role that's all ease and humor, as he was in Wilson's Jitney (also directed by McClinton), where his character seethed with bottled-up resentment and malice. Why aren't we seeing him play Malvolio and Uncle Vanya in alternating rep?

And then we come to Charles S. Dutton, who created the role of Levee in 1984 and is back at the trumpet player's stand now. Whatever his offstage protestations may be (his program bio says this is his farewell to the theater), onstage he is a life force, in total control and carrying total conviction. Yes, the intervening decades have broadened his torso as well as his horizons; yes, he is on the mature side to be playing a young rebel; yes, his gestures are big and stylized, detached from the surrounding ambiance to an extent that makes them almost operatic. Well, as Granville Barker once shouted to the cast of a Shaw play during rehearsals, "Ladies and gentlemen, will you please remember that this is Italian opera." When Dutton dives into one of Levee's speeches, the image that comes to mind is not of anything in the spoken theater, but of some great Verdi baritone, Pinza or Leonard Warren, seizing the moment of an aria.

Dutton, Goldberg, and Henderson in Ma Rainey: a rite to sing the blues
photo: Joan Marcus
Dutton, Goldberg, and Henderson in Ma Rainey: a rite to sing the blues


Ma Rainey'S Black Bottom
By August Wilson
Royale Theatre
242 West 45th Street

The music that guides Dutton is his passionate sincerity: No matter how big the gestures get, they never feel factitious, which is the important point. As for Dutton's age and bulk, there is nothing specifically youthful in the text; his maturity gives the character desperation instead of eagerness, making this job a last frantic hope instead of a jumping-off point, which ups the dramatic ante. To my mind, Dutton makes only one mistaken choice. At the end, when he has suffered the last trivial humiliation that ignites the fuse of the play's violent finish, he plays Levee as defeated and lost before the final fury. But as Langston Hughes pointed out, a dream deferred does not dry up like a raisin in the sun and then explode; it does one or the other, and so should Dutton. As for his "farewell," I don't blame him for being disgusted with the squabbling producers and cross purposes of Broadway's money-scraping theater, but—to trump his bio's Othello quote with one from Coriolanus—there is a world elsewhere, and not all theater business there is conducted in the Broadway manner.

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