Harlem’s Rainey Days

Not only does August Wilson regularly feature songs in his plays, he might be said to write as if composing music. If so, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a series of intriguing jazz riffs that forget to become resolved melody.

Because Rainey (Tamela Aldridge in the Classical Theatre of Harlem revival) is chronically late for sessions and grumpy when she arrives with her foxy girlfriend (Roz Davis) and stuttering nephew (Ben Rivers), her seasoned musicians have time to kill—eventually in more than one meaning of the phrase. Toledo (Henry Afro-Bradley), Cutler (Allie Woods), and Slow Drag (Charles Turner), performers comfortable with purveying Ma’s traditional jug-band sound, do some mild bickering. Much of it is triggered by Toledo’s discussions of how blacks have, or haven’t, reconciled themselves to a world where they’re exploited by, say, white record execs. The level of discourse intensifies with the entrance of Levee, a young man with a horn and an itch to update Ma’s countrified blues. Traumatized more than he knows with memories of his mother’s rape, he talks the talk about handling the Man, but—in the pair of new shoes he doesn’t want stepped on—he can’t walk the walk. WhenLevee fails to get his song-publishing way, he turns on his colleagues, thereby making the ultimate observation in Wilson’s slice-of-life study: Afro-Americans who reach a frustration boiling point lash out at each other and not their oppressors.

After Ma Rainey has cut her sides, she tells the maverick Levee that he plays “10 notes for every note you’re supposed to play.” Paraphrasing the comment slightly, she could be talking about Wilson; he writes three words where one would do. But with Arthur French’s understanding direction and Anne Lommel providing a solid two-level studio and band-room setting, the players make every essential or excessive outcry sing. — David Finkle

Pass Judas the Gravy

Jesus performed miracles. Depending on your gospel of choice, he healed the sick, raised the dead, walked on water, fed masses with a few loaves, and pulled off a nifty bit of transubstantiation—making cannibals of Christians for millennia to come. Ed Schmidt, in his one-man “theatrical event” The Last Supper, performs a miracle as well. But don’t expect the cult of Schmidtianity to become a force to reckon with anytime soon. Schmidt illustrates definitively the difference between a coup de théâtre and a coup de grâce.

That someone should write a play and someone else decide to direct it, that a theater can be found, funds provided, design assembled, and roles cast, is a wonder. But that’s not the sort of miracle Schmidt manages. He stages the performance in his Park Slope kitchen and masterminds all aspects—actor, writer, director, board op, reservationist, chef. (Perhaps his wife, now supporting Schmidt and their two children single-handedly, deserves a producer credit.)

Ostensibly a modern-day riff on the profane women who prepared Jesus’ Last Supper, the play merely provides a template for Schmidt’s endless discursions on life, faith, and theater. Much of this—the play and the digressions—features bad writing. Schmidt’s text is, by turns, lazy, repetitive, and hyperbolic. No doubt it’s purposefully bad, but it’s rarely interestingly bad, and by the 70-minute mark the 12-person audience ceased caring what Schmidt has to say. We whispered and fidgeted in the pews provided for seating. When the culinary marvel did occur (a yuppie version of the loaves and fishes), we were amused but also bemused. Mostly, we were hungry. Had Schmidt dispensed with the smoke and mirrors and merely sat us down for dinner and a chat, it might well have proved a less miraculous but far more satisfying meal. —Alexis Soloski

Bad Play #2,634,711

Start with a collection of lovable, wisecracking co-workers, add a current issue that’s been chewed to pap, and insert a divisive outsider to manufacture laughs and tears. That’s Edward Allan Baker’s Ray on the Water (Here)—not to mention scores of weekly sitcoms. Call it a first-run rerun.

Trude, a magazine junkie, and Nora, perky wife to a disgraced minister, fold and deliver newspapers for Cee-Cee, tough-talking but gold-hearted boss and ex-wife of Guy, who’s now Nora’s lover. Enter Natalie, Manhattan reality-TV producer, who picks up Guy in the local diner of their nowhere, New England hamlet. A snake in designer denims, she seduces secrets from them while cameras roll. What really happened to Cee-Cee and Guy’s baby? Will Trude spill the beans? Watch for the stunning reversal, when, gasp, the denizens of the heartland turn on the city slicker.

Baker has embroidered this contrived plot with “dark” comic touches: dead crows thud onto the rooftop, deadly mosquitoes send the locals into frenzies of swatting. They trade jibes; they square off against each other; they upchuck anguished confessions of traumas past before subsiding into the benign status quo.

Under Ed Bianchi’s broad, serviceable direction, the actors quip and emote, exhibiting a remarkable range of accents for never-traveled townies. Suzanne Di Donna, though, does play Cee-Cee with an understated, hollow-eyed exhaustion that nearly rescues her from stereotype, and Kirsten Russell amusingly embodies the caricature of the all-veneer careerist Natalie.

In an attempt to add arty commentary to the proceedings, two black and white monitors above the action show the “real” people on stage being translated into television. Problem is, they were only TV characters all along. —Francine Russo

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