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August Wilson Classic at NKU Brings Stage and Classroom Together

Inspired by real-life Blues legend “Ma” (Gertrude) Rainey (Mother of the Blues), late, great playwright August Wilson set Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom in the 1927 Chicago recording studio where she fights her record producers for control of her music.

Northern Kentucky University revives Ma Rainey's Black Bottom for a week of performances, opening Tuesday and continuing through Oct. 30 in the Stauss Studio Theatre in the Fine Arts Center. It’s a must-see on its own, but it’s also part of Wilson’s epic 10-play Century Cycle that chronicles the 20th century African American experience. Tickets are going fast.

On stage, Ma, hardened by years of ill-treatment and bad deals, is determined that “Black Bottom”, the song that bears her name, will be recorded her way. But the band’s swaggering young trumpet player plans to catapult the band into the jazz age.

The drama-with-music will spotlight performers on stage and student-musicians in NKU’s jazz program under the direction of Brian Hogg, NKU’s Director of Jazz Studies, who has created a semester-long course around the show.

Along with recording music for the show, the class is creating a full-length CD anchored by the songs from the show and filled out by songs from the era. “There are a lot of novelty songs,” he laughs, written prior to 1923 and in the public domain. He’s especially partial to “I’m a Jazz vampire,” Hogg laughs.  

The CD will be ready for Christmas gifting in early December; there will be an opportunity to sign up for a copy at the show.

Students are taking on every aspect of creating the CD, Hogg says. “Researching, arranging, audio recording, branding, marketing. A visual arts team of four has created the CD design.” It’s a true collaborative project,” says Hogg, and an example of how NKU’s School of the Arts is bringing the arts programs together in partnerships.

The idea isn’t to make a profit, Hogg says, though he would like to make the investment back. (Producing CDs is an expensive undertaking.) “It’s for the students’ portfolios.”

What Hogg has enjoyed most, he says, “is seeing two artistic worlds come together." A musician who plays internationally, he hasn’t been a theatre guy. Students from drama and music all “work their butts off.”

“I guess that’s why we do it, for the love of art, and love of working together. It’s really wonderful.”

Hogg, who lives in Highland Heights has played in the United Kingdom, Canada, Morocco, France, South Africa and Mexico as well as the U.S., and has performed with or accompanie artists including the Temptations, the Coasters, the Dells, Josh Groban, the Cab Calloway Orchestra, the Drifters, the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra, the Blue Wisp Big Band, the Manhattan Transfer, Lonnie Mack, the Gypsy Kings, Carl Weathersby, Jeff Coffin, Rick Margitza, and Little Anthony and the Imperials.

He says he’ll put NKU’s jazz band “up against anybody.”

Make a date with them for the Christmas Concert, with Hogg’s arrangements of holiday favorites. (Listen to “The Carol of the Drum” (“The Little Drummer Boy”) and “What Child Is This” (“Greensleeves”) here.

Catch one of the ensembles at York Street Café (Dec. 1, jazz ensemble and Dec.  5, vocal jazz, both at 8 p.m.)

Ma Rainey will live on after this week’s production, in the CD, and in an April panel presented to coincide with NKU’s annual Celebration of Student Research and Creativity, which showcases the scholarly and creative work of hundreds of students from each of NKU’s six colleges.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Oct. 25-30. Stauss Studio Theatre, Fine Arts Center, Northern Kentucky University, Highland Heights. 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets $14, senior citizens $11, students $8. 859-572-5464 and [email protected].

(If you want to see another of Wilson’s cycle plays, Jitney is currently on stage at Playhouse in the Park.)

Written by Jackie Demaline, RCN Arts
Photo: William Brian Hogg (provided)