Ma Rainey is an American music icon, but she is somehow not a household name. Referred to as “the mother of the blues,” the woman with a booming voice was one of the first ever soul singers. Just recently, it was announced she’d be included in a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame exhibit this year.
She also happened to be a lesbian.
In 1982, famed playwright August Wilson wrote Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which premiered on Broadway two years later. It won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best American Play, and was nominated for both a Tony Award and Drama Desk Award. The play centers around Ma’s band players (four men) who are waiting for her to arrive at a Chicago recording studio to work on her new album. They share stories and jokes and anecdotes about their time as musicians, which eventually leads to some competitive tension between them all. When Ma finally gets in, things get even more heated as everyone tries to learn their place on the album.
Now the play is being performed at the American Theatre in St. Petersberg, Fla., receiving such incredible reviews, it’s been extended through the entire month of February. It’s also opening in Minneapolis this week at the Guthrie Theater, running through March.
Playing Ma at the Guthrie is Jevetta Steele, who also played the legendary singer in a run in Arizona. The actress recently told The Star Tribune about taking the role initially, after being hesitant because of its mature content.
I’m stunned how much I love the piece. I was not an August Wilson fan, but I haven’t seen or read all his plays. I’ve always felt he was long-winded and I disagreed with his use of the N-word. We’re required, as artists, to take a higher road — to educate and to enlighten. August … tried to keep it true to the period and to the people of that time.
The other part of this piece that was difficult is that Ma Rainey is a lesbian. I’m a Christian who’s accepting of all but I’ve never played any role that would make me, personally, questionable. And I believe in throwing myself so much into a role that it’s really believable. I knew that if I took this on, I had to convince people that I’m a lesbian. I’ve got to sell it. I knew I’d done it when my daughter came and saw it in Phoenix.
My sister, who is a lesbian … she, too, was blown away. … She said, “You did it with elegance. You didn’t go as raunchy as you could have.” I was really grateful that Lou gave me room to play. He said, “How would you play her?” I said, “Well, I don’t think that it’s something that she screamed.”
And when asked if Ma’s sexual orientation was “part of her strength,” Jevetta is certain: “Typically, you didn’t live out loud in the ’20s. The ability to choose was a part of her strength.”
While Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is largely about the music and personalities that are a part of creating it, Ma’s sexuality is part of the play, and her girlfriend, Dussie Mae, is part of her entourage in the studio. Unfortunately, Dussie enjoys flirting with Levee, one of the boys in the band.
Lerea Carter as Dussie Mae with James T. Alfred as Levee
The play was set in 1927, though, so it was prior to her recording songs like “Bull Dyker’s Dream” and “Prove it on Me Blues” — which, if you haven’t listened to before, is a must-hear.
If you’re able to get to Florida or Minnesota for a production this winter, definitely make the trip to the theater for this award-winning, one of a kind play.