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Ma raINeY’s BLack BOT­TOM by ñ

Au­gust Wilson (Soulpep­per). At the Young Cen­tre (50 Tank House). Runs to June 9. $32-$96. 416-866-8666. See Con­tin­u­ing, this page. Rat­ing: NNNNN

Soulpep­per’s scorch­ing pro­duc­tion of Au­gust Wilson’s 1982 play opened too late to qual­ify for the Dora Ma­vor Moore Awards, but look out next year.

Mas­ter­fully helmed by cur­rent Soulpep­per academy mem­ber Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu, the play and pro­duc­tion crackle with an en­ergy and in­ten­sity seen too rarely on our stages.

In a record­ing stu­dio in late 1920s Chicago, pro­ducer Stur­dy­vant (Diego Mata­moros) and mu­si­cal agent Irvin (Alex Poch-Goldin) are wait­ing for blues le­gend Ma Rainey (Alana Bridge­wa­ter) to record an al­bum.

Grad­u­ally, her mu­si­cians – bassist Slow Drag (Neville Ed­wards), pi­anist Toledo (an un­rec­og­niz­able Beau Dixon), trom­bon­ist and leader Cut­ler (Lind­say Owen Pierre) and trum­peter Levee (Lovell Adams-Gray) – shuf­fle in, re­hearse and wait for Ma to show up.

Wilson (The Pi­ano Les­son, Fences) is ex­pert at il­lus­trat­ing char­ac­ter through story, not just in what peo­ple are say­ing but in how they say it and how the oth­ers re­spond.

Tindyebwa Otu and her cast en­sure ev­ery ob­ser­va­tion about a pair of shoes or side-eye judg­ment about books or reli­gion reg­is­ters. There’s ten­sion be­neath even the most be­nign ex­change.

When Ma ar­rives with her en­tourage – nephew Sylvester (Mar­cel Ste­wart), girl­friend Dussie Mae (Vir­gilia Grif­fith) – they’re fol­lowed by a po­lice­man (Derek Boyes) and the stakes are raised even higher.

What’s thrilling about the play is how much is go­ing on. There’s the pull of the mu­sic, of course (and wow, can th­ese ac­tors ever sing and play!), but also the ques­tion of whether the record­ing will come off. Then there’s the mat­ter of Levee, who even­tu­ally wants to record his own songs, eye­ing Dussie Mae. And will the band mem­bers get paid in cash? (As Black men, no one will ac­cept their cheques, we learn.)

But while hor­ri­fy­ing sto­ries about whites abus­ing Blacks emerge, one of the deep­est themes comes from Ma’s an­gry bit of wis­dom about how Black artists will be ex­ploited for fi­nan­cial gain, a truth that still res­onates to­day.

Against Ken MacKen­zie’s three­tiered set, with its telling hi­er­ar­chi­cal lev­els, the ac­tors play out this story with com­plete con­fi­dence.

Bridge­wa­ter has the pres­ence and pipes to make you feel like you’re watch­ing the real Ma Rainey. In a showy role, Adams-Gray evokes the un­pre­dictabil­ity of a pow­der keg – un­der­stand­able, given his char­ac­ter’s his­tory – but equally fine are the slow­burn­ing Dixon, heart­break­ing in a story about an ex-wife, and Owen Pierre, the calm go-be­tween who even­tu­ally loses it.

If you’ve ever won­dered about the strug­gles and pain that helped form the blues, it’s all here in this mag­nif­i­cent show. gLeNN suMI

Alana Bridge­wa­ter (right), Vir­gilia Grif­fith and Mar­cel Ste­wart strut their stuff in Ma Rainey’s Black Bot­tom.

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