Thursday, November 25, 2010

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

I saw a play the other night for the first time in a while, "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," by August Wilson.

I'd never seen anything written by the man, but his reputation for demanding excellence preceded the viewing of this work. However...

It wasn't quite what I'd hoped. True, there were some strong individual performances - notably by James T. Alfred and Lerea Carter, who played an emotionally volatile Levee and languidly sensous Dussie Mae, respectively - and there were shining moments by others as well, but over all, the continuity was somewhat threadbare.

Cue pickup and tempo were sluggish, gestures and movement were, at times, disconnected* and the limited stage combat was a tad bit amateurish. But really, these are all just technical points, ways of explaining why I wasn't transported.

It occurs to me the Cast, all of color save one unconvincing irish cop**, may have been less than inspired by a blue hair crowd of somber sixty-somethings, but regardless of why, I never left the building, wasn't taken on a journey.

I remember seeing Hamlet once at the Jeun Lune in Minneapolis. The titular character was played by a man I thought too old for the role*** but 5 minutes in, I forgot all that and in fact, forgot I was a mere audience member.

For the first time ever in my viewing of Hamlet, I became personally involved and experienced each moment emotionally and as if for the first time:

When a wildly bereaved Hamlet stumbled upon a discarded dagger, peered into the glint of it's blade and contemplated his own life's worth - a feeling of impending, gut churning violence hung in the air - and I remember actually thinking, "what's he going to do next?!"

It was frightening and riveting and... delicious.

Ma Rainey? Not so much.

At least not this time.****

*I get that a director may dole out seemingly meaningless blocking, but it's up to the actor to anchor these in character driven action.

**While a subtle dialect is appreciated, one that fades in and out of existence is somewhat less believable

***He was in his forties, and while I still consider this a tad bit old for Hamlet, now that I've reached that same threshold, I find my judgement of his age a little ironic. Young or old, those same powerful emotions, like blood, flow through our veins.

****Not unlike a weekend warrior, I should mention my own failed attempts at professional acting career may've skewed my views unfairly. In the word of the immortal Al Bundy, "I scored 4 touchdowns in one game for Polk High!" Yeah. Maybe I just need to get a life.

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