"Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," which came to the Cort last evening, is both stirring and entertaining much of the time. But despite its length, this work by August Wilson is more in the nature of a padded out, though vivid, slice-of-life than a full-fledged play.
The time is 1927, and we're in the "race" division of a Chicago recording studio, a section where "race" records, made by black performers and almost exclusively for the black pockets of the population, were produced. Though limited, the market was large enough to be profitable for the white entrepreneurs and managers who paid the artists as little as possible.
Nevertheless, Gertrude (Ma) Rainey, the first of the famous blues singers (the great Bessie Smith was her protege), was successful enough to be able to retire in 1933 in considerable comfort. Thus, her story lacks the tragic dimensions of those of Smith, Billie Holliday, and so many others.
But "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" (the catchy title is a reference to one of her numbers, though not one of her biggest hits) isn't really about Ma Rainey. It's about the four musicians who back her up and who are observed during most of the evening in the grubby rehearsal room adjoining the studio.
Wilson's colorful play, splendidly directed by Lloyd Richards, takes us deep into the lives and personalities of the four musicians as they rehearse, fool around, reminisce and quarrel, (violently in the melodramatic finish). All four are unforgettable, but Charles S. Dutton's Levee, the trumpeter, is uncommonly compelling, full of fun at the start, but building up to his attitude toward whites in a horrifying story of the dissolution of his home.
Dutton is nothing short of magnificent, and Joe Seneca, as Cutler, the trombonist, an older and more patient man, is not far behind. And Robert Judd's unrelentingly philosophical Toledo, the pianist, and Leonard Jackson's Slow Drag, the bassist, round out this riveting quartet.
On those occasions when the strong-willed and imperious star does appear, accompanied by her stuttering nephew (Scott Davenport-Richards) and a young plaything named Dossie Mae (Aleta Mitchell) who also falls for Levee's smooth talk, Theresa Merritt fills the bill admirably, both physically and vocally. (She does get to record that title song and another blues, and the boys do some lively noodling here and there).
The popular music business, whether in publishing or recording, has always consisted of the exploitation of the artist, whether writer or performer, until he or she gained a foothold. But the condition of the black artist (or black athlete, for that matter) was considerably worse. And once Wilson has established that, he must fall back on related aspects of black life, remembered incidents interlaced with occasional confrontations leading up to the melodramatic finish. And while Wilson's dialogue is brightly authentic, his play does mark time a good deal, especially in the second half. And in addition to that questionable figure of Ma's toy doll (the one who goes for Levee), there is a musical ambivalence here as jazz is placed in a kind of limbo, Levee referring to Ma's preferred arrangements as "jug" music, whereas he likes to swing and improvise on themes (after all, this is 1927, when Louis Armstrong was already recording, or had been, with Rainey, and when, incidentally, the DeSylva-Brown-Henderson hit "Black Bottom" was already a year old).
I should mention that Lou Criscuolo is particularly good at Ma's peacemaking manager.
"Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" is a superb production in all respects, and its tendency toward wordiness, or filling, is largely overcome by the striking characterizations.
It is a strange kind of play, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, that arrived on Broadway at the Cort last night, coming via the Yale Repertory Company.
Perhaps it is not so much a play as a slice of life, or an exposition of the black experience - the black experience between the wars, around the end of the 1920s.
August Wilson, the playwright, has set his drama in Chicago in 1927, in a recording studio, during a session in which the famed Ma Rainey (correctly called "the Mother of the Blues") recorded Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and the even more famous Moonshine Blues.
This event is a historical happening - but Wilson very reasonably takes it from there. The play does have something to do with the legendary Rainey, and, rather more, the relationship between the black artist and the white, exploitative world of his or her time.
For this is essentially a political play, and although Ma Rainey - and perhaps her singing of the blues and the very blues spirit - inspired Wilson's work, Ma is not even the principal character at her own session.
The focus is on the four musicians that the singer had as her accompaniment. In real life her players were often excellent, and included the likes of Louis Armstrong, Tommy Ladnier, Tampa Red. Here, in fiction, the four of them are not the likes of Armstrong, but they are black men and they are talking, and joking, but most of all talking, about the black experience.
Much is explained, but - and this is the crucial fault of the play - nothing much happens. Until right at the end, when, as if Wilson who had scarcely started his play suddenly found he had run out of time and had to finish it, there is an eruption of sorts, feasible in life but scarcely credible in the tidier domain of drama.
The dialogue is racy, salty, pertinent - but it hangs in the air, its social content being so much more evident than its dramatic context.
The characters - both black and, to a lesser extent, white - are fine. For the most part the writing avoids cliche and stereotype, although the white cop on the take, and the white studio owner on the make, veer close to the danger zone.
Yet the imperious Ma, high-handed, shrewd, proud, and even jealous of her rival Bessie Smith, and Ma's motley crew - sharply representative of their race, time, and profession - are drawn with the observation of life.
Director Lloyd Richards, who has been associated with this play both at Yale and, earlier, at the O'Neill Playwrights' Center, has done a tremendous job in preparing Ma Rainey's Black Bottom for the stage.
The seedy but attractive setting by Charles Henry McClennahan and the crisply period costumes by Daphne Pascucci help all along the line, but Richards' major assist comes from a cast, most of whom seemingly live the play rather than act it.
Theresa Merritt as Ma Rainey has a presence even off-stage, which she is for most of the play, while her quartet, squabbling in the dusty foreground and dramatic spotlight, is nothing less than magnificent.
Joe Seneca as the phlegmatic leader, Robert Judd as a hazily philosophic pianist, Leonard Jackson as the cheerful, hedonistic bass player, and - best of all - Charles S. Dutton as an embittered, complex, new-wave trumpeter, become their roles with grace.
They are playing in a play that is never really there, but thanks to their skills, as well those of Wilson and Richards, to many audiences this may not be overwhelmingly evident.
In such lucky, but happy, circumstances Ma Rainey's Black Bottom might yet wriggle its way to glory. But watch out for that ending, friends!
Late in Act I of ''Ma Rainey's Black Bottom,'' a somber, aging band trombonist (Joe Seneca) tilts his head heavenward to sing the blues. The setting is a dilapidated Chicago recording studio of 1927, and the song sounds as old as time. ''If I had my way,'' goes the lyric, ''I would tear this old building down.''
Once the play has ended, that lyric has almost become a prophecy. In ''Ma Rainey's Black Bottom,'' the writer August Wilson sends the entire history of black America crashing down upon our heads. This play is a searing inside account of what white racism does to its victims - and it floats on the same authentic artistry as the blues music it celebrates. Harrowing as ''Ma Rainey's'' can be, it is also funny, salty, carnal and lyrical. Like his real-life heroine, the legendary singer Gertrude (Ma) Rainey, Mr. Wilson articulates a legacy of unspeakable agony and rage in a spellbinding voice.
The play is Mr. Wilson's first to arrive in New York, and it reached here, via the Yale Repertory Theater, under the sensitive hand of the man who was born to direct it, Lloyd Richards. On Broadway, Mr. Richards has honed ''Ma Rainey's'' to its finest form. What's more, the director brings us an exciting young actor - Charles S. Dutton - along with his extraordinary dramatist. One wonders if the electricity at the Cort is the same that audiences felt when Mr. Richards, Lorraine Hansberry and Sidney Poitier stormed into Broadway with ''A Raisin in the Sun'' a quarter-century ago.
As ''Ma Rainey's'' shares its director and Chicago setting with ''Raisin,'' so it builds on Hansberry's themes: Mr. Wilson's characters want to make it in white America. And, to a degree, they have. Ma Rainey (1886-1939) was among the first black singers to get a recording contract - albeit with a white company's ''race'' division. Mr. Wilson gives us Ma (Theresa Merritt) at the height of her fame. A mountain of glitter and feathers, she has become a despotic, temperamental star, complete with a retinue of flunkies, a fancy car and a kept young lesbian lover.
The evening's framework is a Paramount-label recording session that actually happened, but whose details and supporting players have been invented by the author. As the action swings between the studio and the band's warm-up room - designed by Charles Henry McClennahan as if they might be the festering last-chance saloon of ''The Iceman Cometh'' - Ma and her four accompanying musicians overcome various mishaps to record ''Ma Rainey's Black Bottom'' and other songs. During the delays, the band members smoke reefers, joke around and reminisce about past gigs on a well-traveled road stretching through whorehouses and church socials from New Orleans to Fat Back, Ark.
The musicians' speeches are like improvised band solos - variously fizzy, haunting and mournful. We hear how the bassist Slow Drag (Leonard Jackson) got his nickname at a dance contest, but also about how a black preacher was tortured by being forced to ''dance'' by a white vigilante's gun. Gradually, we come to know these men, from their elusive pipe dreams to their hidden scars, but so deftly are the verbal riffs orchestrated that we don't immediately notice the incendiary drama boiling underneath.
That drama is ignited by a conflict between Ma and her young trumpeter Levee, played by Mr. Dutton. An ambitious sport eager to form his own jazz band, Levee mocks his employer's old ''jugband music'' and champions the new dance music that has just begun to usurp the blues among black audiences in the urban North. Already Levee has challenged Ma by writing a swinging version of ''Ma Rainey's Black Bottom'' that he expects the record company to use in place of the singer's traditional arrangement.
Yet even as the battle is joined between emblematic representatives of two generations of black music, we're thrust into a more profound war about identity. The African nationalist among the musicians, the pianist Toledo (Robert Judd), argues that, ''We done sold ourselves to the white man in order to be like him.'' We soon realize that, while Ma's music is from the heart, her life has become a sad, ludicrous ''imitation'' of white stardom. Levee's music is soulful, too, but his ideal of success is having his ''name in lights''; his pride is invested in the new shoes on which he's blown a week's pay.
Ma, at least, senses the limits of her success. Though she acts as if she owns the studio, she can't hail a cab in the white city beyond. She knows that her clout with the record company begins and ends with her viability as a commercial product: ''When I've finished recording,'' she says, ''it's just like I'd been some whore, and they roll over and put their pants on.'' Levee, by contrast, has yet to learn that a black man can't name his own terms if he's going to sell his music to a white world. As he plots his future career, he deceives himself into believing that a shoeshine and Uncle Tom smile will win white backers for his schemes.
Inevitably, the promised door of opportunity slams, quite literally, in Levee's face, and the sound has a violent ring that reverberates through the decades. Levee must confront not just the collapse of his hopes but the destruction of his dignity. Having played the white man's game and lost to its rigged rules, he is left with less than nothing: Even as fails to sell himself to whites, Levee has sold out his own sense of self-worth.
Mr. Dutton's delineation of this tragic downfall is red-hot. A burly actor a year out of Yale, he is at first as jazzy as his music. With his boisterous wisecracks and jumpy sprinter's stance, he seems ready to leap into the stratosphere envisioned in his fantasies of glory. But once he crash lands, the poison of self-hatred ravages his massive body and distorts his thundering voice. No longer able to channel his anger into his music, he directs it to God, crying out that a black man's prayers are doomed to be tossed ''into the garbage.'' As Mr. Dutton careens about with unchecked, ever escalating turbulence, he transforms an anonymous Chicago bandroom into a burial ground for a race's aspirations.
Mr. Dutton's fellow band members are a miraculous double-threat ensemble: They play their instruments nearly as convincingly as they spin their juicy monologues. Aleta Mitchell and Lou Criscuolo, as Ma's gum- chewing lover and harried white manager, are just right, and so is Scott Davenport-Richards, as Ma's erstwhile Little Lord Faunteroy of a young nephew. It's one of the evening's more grotesquely amusing gags that Ma imperiously insists on having the boy, a chronic stutterer, recite a spoken introduction on her record.
Miss Merritt is Ma Rainey incarnate. A singing actress of both wit and power, she finds bitter humor in the character's distorted sense of self: When she barks her outrageous demands to her lackeys, we see a show business monster who's come a long way from her roots. Yet the roots can still be unearthed. In a rare reflective moment, she explains why she sings the blues. ''You don't sing to feel better,'' Miss Merritt says tenderly. ''You sing because that's a way of understanding life.''
The lines might also apply to the play's author. Mr. Wilson can't mend the broken lives he unravels in ''Ma Rainey's Black Bottom.'' But, like his heroine, he makes their suffering into art that forces us to understand and won't allow us to forget.