Director Phylicia Rashad and the cast of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, from left: Keith David, Glynn Turman, Lillias White, Jason Dirden and Damon Gupton. (Photo by: Luke Fontana)
In 2016, the way in which playwright August Wilson’s words remain so timely and poignant is almost eerie. Though written in 1982, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”, which is set in 1920s Chicago, gives a peek into the complex personal and professional lives of musicians seeking to literally and figuratively have their voices heard. Tony Award winning actress Phylicia Rashad has assembled an all-star cast for her latest directorial undertaking, which is currently showing at the Mark Taper Forum in downtown Los Angeles.
Renown as the “Mother Of The Blues” the production doesn’t necessarily focus on the flamboyant and outspoken, singer Gertrude “Ma” Rainey. However, when lead actress Lillias White does take the stage, she embodies Rainey’s robust, no-nonsense personality. Prior to Rainey making her grand entrance, a predominance of the play, which is staged in a recording studio, focuses on the intimate conversations amongst Ma Rainey’s band as they anxiously wait to record the song about the black bottom dance. The audience truly feels like a fly on the wall listening in on the men’s candid conversations about sex, art, gambling, faith and racial inequalities.
Legendary actors Keith David (“Greenleaf”) and Glynn Turman (“House of Lies”) play bassist Slow Drag and pianist Toledo. Damon Gupton (“The Divide”) is the levelheaded voice of reason as the trombonist, Cutler. Rounding out the quartet in a remarkable, breakout performance is Jason Dirden (“Greenleaf”) who revels in the role of the smooth talking, overly confident, trumpeter, Levee. Dirden’s monologues and the dire decision that he makes in the final scene left the audience captivated and at the edge of their seats.
In an exclusive interview with the L.A. Sentinel, the cast shares how they resonate with their characters and the importance of continuing to produce August Wilson plays for the enlightenment of a younger generation.
LA Sentinel: As an accomplished actress who is preparing to return to television for a role on “Empire”, how do you decide what projects you want to take on as a director? What was the process of selecting which actors would be the best fit for this production?
Phylicia Rashad: When I look at the work, if it speaks to me, I’ll say ‘yes’ and if the work doesn’t resonate with me, I’ll politely decline. [In terms of casting ‘Ma Rainey’] These actors are all such masterful artists. I would cast Lillas as Cinderella and it would work! It’s about the talent as well as being able to work with someone because there are artists that are challenging to work with for one reason or another. Our only challenge with this company was to rein in our laughter because we have such a good time together and when you truly enjoy each other, you can get a lot of great work done and I feel that’s what we’ve accomplished here.
LAS: What is it about the role of Levee that truly spoke to you?
Jason Dirden: The first play I saw where I could remember having a visceral feeling was “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” in Houston at the Alley Theatre. At the time, I didn’t know that I wanted to be an actor but after that production, I understood the power of storytelling as well as the power of representing certain cultures and certain events in history and how it could affect the audience. Once I made the decision to be an actor I said if I ever got the opportunity to play this role, I have to do it. I believe the universe conspires to give you everything you desire and I’ve grown enough as a man to be able to play this role at this time. Thankfully I had a relationship with Phylicia from previous work experience and I called her and she graciously offered me the role and I’m having the time of my life. It’s a tour de force role for me in that you get to experience every emotion possible in two and a half hours.
LAS: What does it mean to you to have Phylicia Rashad directing the production?
Damon Gupton: This was one of the first plays that I was given to read in college. When Phylicia called about a year ago, I said there’s nothing that’s going to stop me from doing this play because you don’t get to live things like this often. The comradery–these types of connections only come along once in a blue moon. To have Phylicia as a director, it makes you want to pinch yourself. I can say that not only about her but Glynn [Turman] and Keith [David], these are icons. For me it’s been extraordinary because [Phylicia’s] breadth of experience, wisdom and gentle way of guiding you to be better has meant a lot to me.
LAS: With careers spanning over four decades, how have your life experiences impacted your work?
Glynn Turman: Acting is about truths and the more truths you’re able to tell and share with your audience the more connection there will be. Truths are a result of knowing yourself. At a certain age you start becoming brave enough to reveal yourself and it’s the revealing of who you are that enables you to dig deeper into different characters. You’ll get to a point where you can say: ‘I can relate to that’, ‘I know that’, ‘I don’t have to make that up’ and that resonates with people in the audience who can tell that you’ve been there.
Keith David: As actors we’re always trying to use our creative imagination. So it shouldn’t stop an actor at 25 from doing this play if the opportunity presented itself. It’s like when you read a great book at one point in your life then in another part of your life, when you read the same book, it’s like it was just written because now what you bring to the experience is so much richer. As Glynn was saying, as you get older your willingness to tell more of the truth is awakened and you don’t have to think about it or imagine it because now you know this to be true.
LAS: In a recent showing of the play, the demographic of the audience was primarily older Caucasian couples. Why should a younger generation feel compelled to see this production?
Lillias White: It’s important because many of the same issues that are addressed in this play are still being addressed today in 2016. I want people to take away the laughter, the joy and the privilege of being an African American having survived what we’ve endured and we’re still able to find so much joy and light in our lives. This show has lots of elements of truth that need to be recognized. It’s great for everyone especially the Caucasian couples that come in that need to understand how we feel, how we look at life and how we’ve been able to deal with it.
LAS: As a director, what are you hoping audiences gleam from watching ‘Ma Rainey’?
Phylicia Rashad: I want people to see some of their own humanity no matter who they are because I think that’s the strength of [August Wilson’s] work; he writes about specific people, from a specific culture, in a specific time and yet the messages and the themes of the play are universal. The themes of faith, questioning the presence and the reality of God, themes of self-love and friendship. This is a story about people of definite worth. I love that Wilson’s characters are salt of the earth people and he puts them where they belong, in the spotlight, so that we could see some of our own humanity.