Timothy Bond, producing artistic director of SU Drama, makes Syracuse Stage directing debut with ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’
Timothy Bond, producing artistic director of SU Drama, makes Syracuse Stage directing debut with ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’August 21, 2008Patrick Finlonstagepr@syr.edu
Timothy Bond, producing artistic director for the Syracuse University Department of Drama in the College of Visual and Performing Arts (VPA) and Syracuse Stage, makes his Syracuse directing debut with August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” The Tony Award-winning show that launched Wilson’s 10-play chronicle of African American life in the 20th century opens Syracuse Stage’s 36th season Sept. 9 and runs through Oct. 4. The cast includes professional actors from Broadway, television and film, as well as two students from SU Drama.
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” opened on Broadway in 1984. In 1985, it won a Tony Award for Best Play and a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding New Play. Inspired by real-life “Mother of the Blues” Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, the show takes place over a single day of making music, making jokes and making deals. A young and ambitious horn player named Levee arrives with new band arrangements, including one for a popular dance called “The Black Bottom,” which Ma insists on singing in the “familiar” way. The other band members (Cutler, Toledo and Slow Drag) follow suit, warning Levee about butting heads with Ma and teasing him about his new shoes. As the day unfolds and Ma’s demands are met, Levee cracks. He succumbs to the harsh realities of unjustly thwarted aspirations, revealing the self-destructive consequences of misdirected anger and violence.
“‘Ma Rainey’ is a powerful hybrid of theater-part musical and part drama,” says Bond, who points to “barbershop humor” as one of his favorite things about the play. “But ultimately, it’s about Levee and his journey. It’s a play that celebrates the blues, the struggle of African Americans to have their voice.”
Layers of social power and hierarchy are illustrated by scenic designer William Bloodgood’s three-level set. The rehearsal room is lowest, cold and unfinished, representing hell or purgatory. Above the rehearsal room is the recording studio, a place where hope lives, where Levee dreams of making it big. At the top sits the recording booth looking down over the performers, where decisions are made by the white manager and white producer.
“I think these hierarchical levels are important in understanding the weight of pressure coming down on Levee, which builds to the catastrophic, final note of the play,” Bond notes.
Blues music composed by Michael G. Keck is present throughout the show, providing a voice for hope and struggle. In the play, Ma says: “The more music you got in the world, the fuller it is. You don’t sing to feel better. You sing ’cause that’s a way of understanding life.”
“It’s about American history, it’s about all our histories, no matter what your cultural background,” says Bond. “Wilson’s plays speak to you as a human being; they speak to you about the African American experience in this country, which is the history of America. I think he has proven himself to be one of the top playwrights, certainly in the 20th century, but I think he will be remembered for many centuries to come.”
The themes and conflicts in “Ma Rainey” can be found throughout Wilson’s cycle: jazz versus blues, male versus female, boys trying to become men, old guns schooling the young guy, migration from south to north, clashes between southern and northern African Americans and clashes between older and younger generations.
Syracuse Stage recently announced a commitment to producing all of the plays in Wilson’s 10-play cycle. Stage previously produced four plays: “Fences” (1991), “The Piano Lesson” (1996), “Jitney” (2002) and “Gem of the Ocean” (2007). After “Ma Rainey,” the remaining plays are “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” “Seven Guitars,” “Two Trains Running,” “King Hedley” and “Radio Golf.”
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” runs Sept. 9-Oct. 4. Tickets are now on sale, ranging from $15-$48, with discounts for seniors and students. Rush tickets are available two hours prior to curtain. Six-play season subscriptions and Flex 6 Packs are also available. Tickets can be purchased in-person at the Syracuse Stage Box Office, 820 E. Genesee St., by calling (315) 443-3275 or online at http://www.SyracuseStage.org. For group discounts, call 443-9844.
Tickets will be available through SU’s Pulse for select performances at a discounted rate for SU students, faculty and staff ($3 for students and $5 for faculty and staff) and may be purchased at the Schine Student Center Box Office, 443-4517. The following performances are available through Pulse: Thursday, Sept. 25, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, Sept. 27, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, Sept. 28, at 2 p.m.; Wednesday, Oct. 1, at 7:30 p.m.