The fall theater season opens in Portland with two plays about race, culture and the American experience.
Portland Stage Company begins its 40th season with August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” a play set in Chicago in 1927 during a recording session for blues singer Ma Rainey. Portland Stage artistic director Anita Stewart considers Wilson the Shakespeare of black America, and ranks him among the top four American playwrights of all time.
With humor, drama and a rich dose of musicality, the show explores what Stewart calls the “atrocities of Jim Crow,” using the blues to bear witness and define American culture. It previews beginning Tuesday, with opening night scheduled for Sept. 27.
On Munjoy Hill, Good Theater begins its season with “Clybourne Park” by Bruce Norris. The play won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011 for best drama and the 2012 Tony Award for best play. Norris wrote it in response to Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” from 1959.
“Clybourne Park” presents two stories from Chicago, one set in 1959 when a white family prepares to sell its home to a black family, setting off neighborhood drama. Act II occurs 50 years later, when a black family arranges to sell the same home to a white family, which intends to tear it down and build a mini-mansion in its place.
It’s a play about prejudice, gentrification and the subtle scorn of racism, and it opens Oct. 2 at the St. Lawrence Arts Center.
Mad Horse, the Public Theatre in Lewiston and the American Irish Repertory Ensemble also are preparing to open their fall seasons.
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is the third Wilson play that Stewart has presented at Portland Stage. Previously, she’s produced “Fences” and “The Piano Lesson.” With a cast of 10, it’s one of the largest and most ambitious plays that Portland Stage has mounted in many years.
“Black Bottom” is among 10 plays that Wilson wrote as part of his Century Cycle, each of which is set in a different decade and offers a perspective on the 20th-century black experience in America. It’s the only one not set in Pittsburgh, where Wilson was born and grew up.
Wilson lived to age 60, dying of liver cancer in 2005. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” was his breakthrough. It was accepted into the National Theater Conference at the O’Neill Theater Center in 1982, then moved to Broadway. During his career, Wilson won the Pulitzer Prize twice, for “Fences” and “The Piano Lesson,” as well as many Tony awards and other honors.
Stewart considers him among the most important American playwrights, along with Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. “His language is so poetic, it sings,” she said. “His language is glorious, and his message is subtle. He depicts a part of our history that isn’t a finished story.”
The cast for “Black Bottom” includes experienced actors with national and regional credits, and several specialize in Wilson plays. They know the language and his nuances.
“They know his work and they know his legacy,” Stewart said. “It’s like having Shakespeare’s troupe show up and do Shakespeare for you, in a sense. It’s very, very exciting to have them here. We feel a huge responsibility to do it right and make sure it is as good as it can be.”
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” has many layers. Ultimately, it’s a tragedy, and includes elements of humor and a full soundtrack of music. It’s set in a recording studio, as blues diva Ma Rainey brings her band to Chicago to make a record. Tempers flare as artistic differences surface, and the session dissolves into discord and violence.
During her time at Yale School of Drama in the late 1980s, Stewart got to know Wilson personally. He was dating a friend, Constanza Romero, a costume designer. Stewart spent “a fair amount of time with him” and became a friend.
Above all else, Wilson was passionate about language, and the way he weaved his stories together distinguishes him and his work, Stewart said. “He loved words. He loved stories, and he loved dialogue.”
Stewart hired Jade King Carroll to direct the play. She is freelance director and dramaturge based in New York.
Carroll is also friends with Wilson’s widow, and in 2010 was presented with the Paul Green Award for Outstanding Emerging Theater Professional from the National Theatre Conference and the Estate of August Wilson.
She hopes audiences leave the theater engaged in conversation about what they’ve experienced. “I’d love for them to see a world they don’t have a chance to see,” she said.
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” previews at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Sept. 26, opens at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 27, and continues through Oct. 17. $35 to $45. 774-0465; portlandstage.org
AT GOOD THEATER, artistic director Brian Allen chose to open the season with “Clybourne Park” because “it’s one of the best scripts we’ve ever done. It’s such a sharp piece of writing.”
It’s actually two shows in one, focused on a single home in Chicago. In Act I it’s 1959, and a white couple is preparing to sell the house to a black family. The neighborhood objects, concerned about the effect of a black family moving in.
In Act II, the same house is on the market 50 years later. By this time, the neighborhood is predominantly black, and the house is being sold to a white family that intends to tear it down and build something bigger. Neighbors object, because they want to preserve the history and integrity of the neighborhood.
Allen has a cast of seven, each of whom plays two characters: Stephen Underwood, Amy Roche, Mark Rubin, Noelle LuSane, Lucas O’Neil, Bari Robinson and Sally Wood. Allen directs.
Playwright Bruce Norris won both the Pulitzer and Tony for this show, and it is being widely produced across America. Allen wanted to open the Good Theater season with it to start a conversation about gentrification and racism.
“It’s just a very interesting time to do this show right now in Portland,” he said. “A lot of the issues raised in this play are issues that people in Portland are dealing with right now. It’s very timely and topical.”
“Clybourne Park” opens Oct. 2 and runs through Oct. 27 at the St. Lawrence Arts Center, 76 Congress St., Portland. $20 to $28. 885-5885; goodtheater.com
MAD HORSE THEATRE COMPANY opens its 28th season with the Maine premiere of David Ives’ “The School for Lies,” inspired by Moliere’s “The Misanthrope.” A French farce set in 1966, it’s smart and funny, cunning and witty, said Mad Horse artistic director Christine Louise Marshall.
“It just jumps right off the page,” she said in a statement. “David Ives’ language has such musicality that it’s incredibly easy on the ears, while at the same time so smart and funny. But it requires a very smart cast as well to really make the rhythm sing. We absolutely have that cast. It’s a terrific season opener.”
The cast includes Mad Horse company members Burke Brimmer, Janice Gardner, Chris Horton, Kat Moraros and Nate Speckman. Guest artists are Evan Dalzell, Kerry Ann Loomis, Shawn Reardon and Johnny Speckman. Marshall directs.
“The School for Lies” opens Sept. 26 and runs through Oct. 13 in the Mad Horse Theater at the Hutchins School, 24 Mosher St., South Portland. $15 to $20. 747-4148; madhorse.com
THE PUBLIC THEATRE in Lewiston launches its 23rd season with a play by a local hero, presenting John Cariani’s “Love/Sick” beginning Oct. 18. Cariani grew up in northern Maine, and now makes his home in New York, and is best known for writing “Almost, Maine.”
“Love/Sick,” is his latest play, having received its premiere last season at Portland Stage. It’s a series of short plays about the high and lows of love, and why it can be such a conundrum.
Oct. 18-27 at the Public Theatre, Lewiston. $20. 783-3200; thepublictheatre.org
THE AMERICAN IRISH REPERTORY ENSEMBLE celebrates its 10th season and opens with Frank McGuinness’ “Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me” Oct. 3-20. The play is a drama about three strangers — an American, an Irishman and an Englishman — held hostage in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war in the 1980s. AIRE presents the show in the Studio Theater at Portland Stage Company. $15 to $20. airetheater.com
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be reached at 791-6457 or: