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.
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.
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.