Of Thee I Sing

Blues in the Night: Whoopi Goldberg, in the title role, dukes it out with the cast of Ma Rainey in the recording studio.Photo: Joan Marcus

How nice that August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is even better than I remembered it from 1984. The debut work in a ten-play cycle about the twentieth-century African-American experience, it takes place in 1927, in a Chicago recording studio and band room. The whites—the recording producer and the agent—are in conflict with Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, a despotic singer, band owner, and lesbian. Her authority is also challenged by the trumpet player Levee, who writes and wants to play new-style jazz, as opposed to Ma’s jugtown. There is bickering, too, between Levee and the three other, more conventional band members. They are the pragmatic, grizzled trombonist-guitarist Cutler, the laid-back bass player Slow Drag, and the book-learned, argumentative pianist Toledo, each of them a personality in his own right.

Add to their often comical imbroglios the arias some of them get, monologues recalling weird or terrible back stories that spill out under prodding or pressure. From all this, Wilson has fashioned a somewhat overloaded but often electrifying comedy-drama that David Gallo, Toni-Leslie James, and Donald Holder have racily designed and Marion McClinton has staged with tellingly intricate detail.

The more tractable musicians are played with idiosyncratic gusto by Carl Gordon, Stephen McKinley Henderson, and Thomas Jefferson Byrd. Anthony Mackie is winning as the stammering nephew whom Ma peremptorily foists on the band, and Heather Alicia Simms is delicious as Ma’s squeeze straying into straightness under Levee’s blandishments. As the exploitative whites, Louis Zorich and Jack Davidson aptly hold their own. Charles S. Dutton, the sole holdover from 1984, is Levee. Older and chubbier, which doesn’t matter, he is a torrentially powerful, elemental actor, whose outbursts mesmerize, and whose very silences impress.

As the main producer, Goldberg is unlikely to fire herself, even though she can’t sing and doesn’t bother to act. She smirkingly sashays about, often barely audible, out of period and character, swelled-headedly content just making Whoopi. As the old hymn sort of has it, “every prospect pleases and only Ma is vile.” Try to find out if and when her understudy, the marvelous Ebony Jo-Ann, goes on, and catch the show then.

You know the story. Charlotte has a fight with her heartless boyfriend and moves to New York to become a writer. Rents a room, mingles with downtown crowd—nymphos, druggies, and assorted minorities. Gets boring job and must ward off unwelcome attentions of drunken boss. Biggest problem: how to stop smoking. Swims at Y, jogs, suffers but stops. Carries on. That is Little Fish, with book, lyrics, and music by Michael John LaChiusa, who once could write tunes but now mostly writes notes. Book based on stories by Deborah Eisenberg, mediocre; lyrics no better. The one melodious tune is sung by the drunken, lecherous boss, repellently.

Graciela Daniele’s direction and choreography are slickly efficient; Riccardo Hernández’s megalopolitan décor, all steel, glass, and skyscraper projections, is frolicsomely lighted by Peggy Eisenhauer. Jennifer Laura Thompson’s Charlotte is competent but charmless; Marcy Harriell is perky as her swinging chum, Kathy; the rest play their humdrum or unappealing parts suitably. As Cinder, the loud, grotesque, aggressively obnoxious Lea DeLaria, whenever onstage, turns a weak show into a freak show.

Karin Coonrod’s production of Julius Caesar for Theatre for a New Audience begins with the assembled cast striding toward us singing Mark Bennett’s musical setting of one of Cicero’s speeches. This raises expectations of a musical Julius, which would be horrible, but less so than what we get. Coonrod has few ideas, and those dubious, borrowed, and exaggerated. Blaringly abrasive music for transitions and glaringly blinding lights shone at the audience have been used before, but never with such maniacal persistence. She let Douglas Stein design a set consisting of a row of simulated cement curtains, each a few yards behind the other. In one scene, we can see the absent characters from the knees down behind the hindmost wall, while others, unfortunately fully visible, perform in front. Tommy Tune would at least have made those half-seen legs dance.

It is unclear whether most of the cast members were chosen also for their lack of looks or merely for their lack of talent. Even Daniel Oreskes and Graham Winton, who have been known to satisfy, fall prey to the surrounding ineptitude. Typical of Coonrod’s eye is to cast the thin-faced (and even thinner-gifted) Thomas M. Hammond as Brutus and the well-fed Oreskes as the lean and hungry Cassius. This production may display more varieties of foul acting than I have ever seen, or even thought possible.

Enda Walsh, a hibernian playwright who really is Enda—not Edna, and certainly no Dame—offers little more than two splendid performances in his bedbound (a title he spells with a lowercase b, but then he commits enough capital offenses).

The play takes place almost entirely in a shabby-genteel bed shared by the fully dressed Brían F. O’Byrne, as a shiftless furniture dealer with dreams of glory and fits of rage, and Jenna Lamia, as his polio-stricken and bedridden daughter, who seeks solace in the cheap romance fiction her mother, whom Dad may have killed, used to read. Walsh has a certain Irish gift of the gab (often scarcely distinguishable from logorrhea) and an even greater gift of the shouted obscenity, often continuous (up to six consecutive fucks), as well as multiple non-obscenities (up to twelve consecutive gos). How O’Byrne and Lamia manage not to lose count during these outbursts of echolalia is a minor miracle.

As his own director, Walsh has allowed Klara Zieglerova—contrary to his different but equally bizarre stage directions—to stuff the stage with creepy bric-a-brac, much of it hanging from the ceiling. The whole thing should have, as the saying goes, stood in bed, though I am mildly curious about two other Walsh works, enticingly entitled Sucking Dublin and Disco Pigs.

Theater Listings
Openings and Closings
Broadway Shows
Off-Broadway Shows
Off-Off-Broadway Shows

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Revival of the August Wilson play, starring Charles S. Dutton and Whoopi Goldberg.

Little Fish
New musical by Michael John LaChiusa.

Julius Caesar
Theatre for a New Audience’s adaptation of the classic. Directed by Karin Conrood.

New play by Enda Walsh, starring Brian F. O’Byrne.

Of Thee I Sing