NAATC bringing ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ to Indy stage after 40 years

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Naptown African American Theatre Collective's production of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is onstage for 12 performances at the Phoenix Theatre Cultural Center March 8-24.
Naptown African American Theatre Collective's production of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is onstage for 12 performances at the Phoenix Theatre Cultural Center March 8-24. (Photo provided)

“Legendary blues meets risky business trapped in a chokehold of racism” in Naptown African American Theatre Collective’s next production.

Written by August Wilson, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is the next production to take the stage during NAATC’s inaugural season March 8-24. Set in 1927 Chicago, the show takes place at a recording studio as jazz and blues singer Ma Rainey, her musicians and entourage record a handful of songs.

“[People] can look at this play and see this powerful talented Black woman artist, who is living in her truth unapologetically, who is demanding respect that is oftentimes not given to us, specifically to Black and/or queer in the world,” LaKesha Lorene, founder and producing director of NAATC, said. “She is making sure she’s leaving the door open for the next.”

Unlike his other works, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is the only play Wilson wrote not set in Pittsburg and features strong Black and queer women in prominent spaces, fighting for their rights as their art is monetized but not for their benefit.

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” covers difficult aspects of race relations and racism in the music industry, as Edan Evans, director of the play, said the characters are all adults ranging in ages from 18-40, which means they would be one or two generations removed from slavery. Much of the music created by Black musicians, including Ma Rainey’s, was at risk of being stolen by producers and sold to white artists who profited off them, Evans said.

“Anytime you open up a hymnal, you know, a book of hymns, [or] you listen to songs on radio from the early half of the twentieth century, anytime it says ‘unknown’ for who created the tune, or who wrote the lyrics — anytime there’s something unknown, you can be guaranteed that Black people did it, and people tried to erase that acknowledgement,” Evans said.

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Although the play includes quite a bit of heavy material, Lorene said theater is meant to be a vehicle for tough subjects and encourage viewers to address them head on. As a playwright, Lorene said Wilson is “masterful” at incorporating comedy but leaving space for people to have conversation after the curtain drops.

Selena Jackson-King, the actor playing Dussie Mae, said her character might come across as a two-dimensional, sexual character — someone’s sugar baby — to some, but that is not who she is. During rehearsals, and with help from Evans and the play’s dramaturg, Celeste Williams, Jackson-King discovered how powerful of a character Dussie Mae is within the cultural context of the story.

“Being a queer character in the 1920s is a feat in itself that was not only dangerous, but it was just something that wasn’t seen,” Jackson-King said. “Dussie Mae is Ma’s safe space, she can kind of unfold and take off the layers that the world has put on her, and kind of allows Ma to be a woman herself.”

Lorene said it has been almost 40 years since “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” was performed on an Indianapolis stage. The show is making its return on the coattails of Black History Month and just in time for Women’s History Month, bringing attention to powerful Black women who stood up for themselves and their creativity and paved the way for women behind the NAATC, who work to and create and keep these stories alive.

“It means a lot to do it in this way because I’d imagine that this is probably the way August Wilson would want it done,” Lorene said. “That’s not to say other people can’t produce it, but it just means something more when art is coming from the people, and that’s what you see with this cast, and … you get to see it from a different lens when artistically it’s coming from the culture it’s representing.”

Although the show does not fit neatly into the genres of comedy, drama or musical, Evans said that is what she loves about it. It has a “regular life” feel with funny moments, devastating moments and musical moments about real people’s lives all wrapped up together.

“The audience will have a lot to talk about and a lot to comb through, but it will be a very powerful ride. There will be some laughs; there probably will be some tears,” Lorene added. “Our stories are not one dimensional because we are not a one-dimensional people. It’ll just humanize this argument … very much still happening today for artists of color and things we have to fight for.”

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is onstage for 12 performances at the Phoenix Theatre Cultural Center March 8-24. Tickets start at $30 and are available online at naatcinc.org or by calling the Phoenix Theatre Box Office at 317-635-7529. Discounted tickets are available for students and groups. For more information, visit naatcinc.org or phoenixtheatre.org.

Contact staff writer Chloe McGowan at 317-762-7848 or chloegm@indyrecorder.com. Follow her on Twitter @chloe_mcgowanxx.