Ma Rainey's Black Bottom at the Guthrie

Step back in time to 1927 Chicago, when the blues reigned supreme.

Penumbra Theater’s latest venture perfectly embodies what the company does best. “Penumbra draws national attention to the Twin Cities for artistically excellent productions that explore the human condition through the prism of the African American experience,” says Lou Bellamy, Penumbra’s artistic director. The theater’s current undertaking is Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, August Wilson’s 1982 play about, specifically, Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Mother of the Blues, and, more generally, the condition of African Americans in 1927 America.

Staged on the Guthrie Theater’s McGuire Proscenium stage, the story takes place in a Chicago recording studio. We are first introduced to Sturdyvant and Irvin, the studio’s owner and Ma’s manager, respectively. Next comes the band: Toledo, the lanky, book-reading, even-keeled piano player; Cutler, the band’s leader and trombone player; Slow Drag, the bass player who’s new to the group and prefers laying low to speaking out; and Levee, the loud-mouth, know-it-all, trouble-making trumpet player. Although we don’t meet Ma until later in the first act, everything—dialogue, emotions, decisions—revolves around her. And when we do meet her? Well, then everything is definitely about her.

Another element around which the play pivots is racism, and the scars—both figurative and literal—that black Americans carry with them due to generations of injustice and denigration. It’s this theme that ties together the stories of the play’s characters: Sturdyvant’s leeriness of Ma and her band, Levee’s determination to start his own band no matter the cost to his pride, Toledo’s insistence on change and education and his frustration with the laziness he sees around him, Ma’s stubbornness and apparent arrogance. Fast moving and chalk-full of dialogue, the script is a rollercoaster of tension, humor, acceptance, and struggle, made even more powerful by the phenomenal acting, much of which is provided by Penumbra regulars. Perhaps the most powerful performance is by James T. Alfred (Levee). Not only does Alfred become his hot-headed, stubborn, angry-at-the-world character, but he makes the audience feel his pain and frustration through heartfelt monologues and dynamic outbursts. If you don’t get goosebumps at least twice during the performance, pinch yourself to make sure you didn’t fall asleep.

More a lesson in history than a biography of Ma Rainey, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom brings to life stories that are too often left untold, diving into dark truths that much of America tries to mask. In other words, it is truly the embodiment of the thing Ma Rainey knew best: the blues.

Playing through March 6, 2011