Pulitzer and Tony-Winning August Wilson’s Play Awes Arizona

Photos by Tim Fuller

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” vividly paints Ma Rainey, the “Mother of the Blues,” laying down tracks in 1920s Chicago. Written by legendary playwright August Wilson, the production dispenses plenty of humor while also artfully elaborating on themes of fame and discrimination.

The play’s environment is a Paramount recording studio, a set in which Arizona Theatre Company‘s production staff spared no detail, bringing in worn-looking pianos, coiled heating units, old Coca-Cola bottles and more to insert the audience directly into the times. Ma Rainey, by the way, was a real person whose impact on music was so profound she was inducted into both the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

In the play, her character is joined by several other characters with strong personalities, including a penny-pinching producer, her apologetic manager, and her backup band — a quartet of musicians who are good at exchanging humorous banter, but have a difficult time coming to agreements. The play examines jealousy, shattered dreams, and on a larger scale, the African-American experience of the decade.

A co-production of Arizona Theatre Company and Penumbra Theatre Company, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is directed by Lou Bellamy, whose award-winning productions of “Jitney” and “A Raisin in the Sun” were also performed for ATC audiences. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” was the first play by Wilson to be performed on Broadway, and his series of 10 plays, each of which examines African-American life in each decade of the 20th century, has been called one of the greatest achievements in American theater.

The production features a 10-person cast of remarkable actors, including Jevetta Steele as Ma Rainey. Steele has appeared twice on Broadway and in a number of theater productions as well as such films as “Corrina, Corrina,” “Hoop Dreams” and “Born to Be Wild.” She is also a professional recording artist and has four gold records to her name. Also impressive is Abdul Salaam El Razzac (“Toledo”), who has performed in theater productions across the U.S., and whose film and TV credits include “8 Mile,” “Malcolm X,” “Glory,” “Pretty Woman,” “Frasier” and “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”

The incredible James Craven, James T. Alfred, William John Hall Jr., Lerea Carter, Phil Kilbourne, Michael Tezla, Ahanti Young and Brendan Guy Murphy round out the cast.

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is performed at the Herberger Theater Center and runs in Phoenix through Nov. 28. Fore more information, visit ATC online here.

Scroll down to check out some photos from the production.

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