Susie Butler is an accomplished singer with a four-octave range.
It’s a shame, then, that she only gets to project a few dozen narrow but highly effective blues notes on a single song, the title tune in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” a San Francisco production that refers to a popular dance of the time (1927 Chicago), not a body part.
Butler’s acting chops and facial expressions, though passable as she portrays the “colored” diva as bossy, arrogant and bling-laden, simply don’t compare with her stellar voice.
Not to worry. August Wilson’s drama, a new presentation of the Multi Ethnic Theater (MET), focuses more on Rainey’s four bandmates than on the legendary thrush, who doesn’t show up (with her nephew and her girlfriend) until the first act is almost over.
The quartet is crammed into a decrepit rehearsal room and recording studio, where they and Rainey are laying down tracks for a new album. The musicians spin tales, joke, pontificate and argue intensely — mainly that last item, egged on by Levee, a young, button-pushing, knife-wielding horn player who desperately wants to write his own danceable melodies and head his own combo instead of just fingering “jug band” music.
Rainey, meanwhile, is all too aware her value is as a cash cow for her white handlers, including her manager of six years.
“They don’t care about me,” she wails.
The close-to-three-hour play covers issues of race, God and the Devil, art and music (“Blues help you get up in the morning…fill up that emptiness”), and the exploitation of black artists by white producers.
It’s mostly dramatic (particularly its abrupt ending), but showcases an infusion of pungent humor and language that melds Wilson’s poetic bent with African American street dialect and slang.
Plus a verbal avalanche of the n-word.
Most effective are interactions between the musicians: Ernest White as the deep thinker/bookworm Toledo; Nathaniel Montgomery as Levee, the narcissist with unrealistic aspirations who obsesses over his new shoes; Gift Harris as Slow Drag, a womanizing bassist and boozer who doubles on vocals; and Vernon Medearis as Cutler, the group’s reefer-rolling leader/trombonist who starts each tune with a folksy, “1, 2, you know what to do.”
Most poignant are one scene in which Cutler tells of a black minister saving himself by dancing for a white mob at a deserted train station and another where Levee recalls white men assaulting his mother and hanging his father.
“Black Bottom,” a lone wolf of the 10 plays in Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle” because it’s set somewhere other than that Pennsylvania city, debuted on Broadway in 1985 but still resonates in 2019.
Especially when the character of pianist Toledo, the group’s philosopher-in-residence, intones such tidbits as this paraphrase: As long as black men imitate white men and let them tell us what to do, we’ll never find out who we are.
Wilson’s dialogue is awesome in its authenticity.
With band conversations meandering all over the map (not unlike verbal ramblings in the Marin Man to Man weekly support group I facilitate), running a gamut from passionate proclamations to non-passionate repetition.
It’s also fascinating for me to hear dark-skinned members of the audience laughing more at some word interplay than I, a white dude.
The MET production, at the American Conservatory Theatre’s 49-seat The Costume Shop, is aided by period costumes designed by Maria Graham that instantly yank me back to the ‘20s.
Along with Kamara Atiba’s appreciable lighting effects.
MET, by the way, is producing “Black Bottom” as part of its decade-long “August in August” tradition. Three plays in the cycle are yet to come, according to MET director Lewis Campbell, who founded the troupe in 1993.
Wilson, a high-school dropout, is famous for “Fences,” which won both a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award, and “The Piano Lesson,” which also earned a Pulitzer. As for “Black Bottom,” Netflix expects to soon air its own version starring Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman (and produced by Denzel Washington).
Butler, who’s performed her solo-show exploration of Sarah Vaughn tunes in California and Florida for 15 years, is best as Ma Rainey when she’s mega-demanding — that someone fetch her Coca Colas, for instance.
The characterization seems well-drawn.
Unlike that of Sylvester, her stuttering nephew who rattles me because the actor (Alex Loi) is Asian, not black (shades of controversies like a white Scarlett Johannsson playing a Japanese character in “Ghost in the Shell”).
Also jarring is the stop-action artifice whereby actors who portray instrumentalists don’t really play (but simulate it to an offstage recording).
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is a play that partially focuses on the difficulty of finding kumbaya between blacks and whites, a racial divide Donald Trump is manipulating with an eye on 2020.
I hope he’s making a big mistake — and, as a result, loses the election.
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” will play through Sept. 1 at The Costume Shop, 1117 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets: $25 to $50. Night performances, 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays; matinees, 2 p.m. Sundays. Information: 415-420-8000 or www.multiethnictheater.com.