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Theatre Review: "Ma Rainey" at NKU is Solid, a Terrific Showcase

Put your hands together for the guys in the band in emotionally charged Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at Northern Kentucky University through Oct. 30. It’s a solid evening of theater, and a terrific showcase for NKU’s African-American actors.

Landon E. Horton, Carlos Matthews and Kaleb King are at the heart of August Wilson’s period drama about a recording session in 1927 Chicago, with Mother of the Blues Ma Rainey (Brittany Hayes) fighting to keep what’s hers (including artistic integrity). Her adversary is a white producer who knows what he wants, not what’s good.

Like Ma Rainey says, blues is talking about life, and white folks don’t hear it.

Ma Rainey is part of playwright Wilson’s epic, 10-play Century Cycle, in which he created a moment in every decade of the 20th century to illuminate the African-American experience.

Wilson, a true poet of the stage, creates a powerhouse of a play, in a time that’s almost at the halfway point between Reconstruction and Civil Rights. Segregation was the law of the land and black lives should have mattered but too often didn’t.

Director Daryl Harris, with the help of spot-on design by Director Daryl Harris Kenton Brett (scenic), Ronnie Chamberlain (costumes), Terry Powell (lighting) and sound (Lydia Tobler) turns the Stauss Studio Theatre into a bare bones recording studio, where the back-up trio tell their stories while they wait for Mama to show up.

Also a vital element to the production is the participation of NKU jazz students, led by Music Production Coordinator William Brian Hogg, who or on tape providing the show’s music.

There’s plenty of drama – the reason Mama is late, and the producer’s plan to turn her blues into jazz, so much more popular in the big cities of the north. He has secret plans with horn player Levee (Geoffrey Hill), swaggering and smartly dressed. Levee carries his own secrets rooted in his past. Freshman Hill is a little green but lands most of Levee’s big moments, no small feat. It’s a remarkable accomplishment for an actor his age.

It’s an engrossing night of theater with notable performances including Hayes, flashing plenty of diva; Rhonisha Gentry as Ma’s gal-toy Dusie Mae, who has plenty of attitude and plenty of moves (she’s also the sow’s choreographer. Isaiah (no last name, how theatrical) is another freshman who shows promise, as Ma’s stuttering nephew, who has no shortage of sass.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, through Oct. 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].

Written by Jackie Demaline, RCN Arts