Gertrude Pridgett was one tough bitch.
Known professionally as Ma Rainey, she was dubbed the Mother of the Blues — an important voice in African-American culture, now largely forgotten. Perhaps Ma's reputation — as a loud, demanding, egomaniacal, cussing, Caucasian-loathing lesbian diva who "don't give a shit" — has something to do with it.
August Wilson tackled Ma mania in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. An ambitious new Kuntu Repertory Theatre production brought back punches I felt when I first saw the show, on Broadway, in 1983, including Wilson's taut, tense plot dealing with race, religion, art and the exploitation of black recording artists by white producers.
It's 1927 and Ma saunters, late, into a cramped Chicago studio and immediately squares off against her musicians and tight-fisted producer and manager. Ma is tough for good reason: Wilson shows that even a famous singer of her day had to fight for every bit of respect. A musician summarizes a core theme: "As long as the colored man look to white folks to put the crown on what he say ... as long as he looks to white folks for approval ... then he ain't never gonna find out who he is and what he's about."
It's probably not fair to review the Kuntu production, which on opening night was not ready to open. Actors stalled and fell on each other's dialogue. Light cues were missed. The show crawled along, never finding the insight, the passion, the rhythm of Wilson's work.
Most disheartening was the music. That director Vernell Lillie mounted a show based on Ma Rainey with canned music is shocking. The band members pick up their non-period instruments and attempt to sync with tracks tinny as an old tuna can. It was embarrassing to hear them "play" while sound cues were missed.
There were some fine, if uneven, performances. But the show does not belong to Teri Bridgett, who plays Ma. Especially satisfying was Herb Newsome, as band member Levee. His speech recalling how, as a child, he tried to defend his mother from a gang of white men who raped and brutalized her was delivered with such rawness that the audience was reduced to a quivering mass. And Charles Timbers Jr. does a fine job as the reefer-making Cutler.