September 19, 2013

Matters of race open Portland theater season

Portland Stage presents 'Ma Rainey' and Good Theater stages 'Clybourne Park,' both by Pulitzer Prize winners.

By Bob Keyes
Staff Writer

The fall theater season opens in Portland with two plays about race, culture and the American experience.

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Tina Fabrique is Ma Rainey and Nyahale Allie is Dussie Mae in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”

Darren Setlow photo courtesy of Portland Stage Company

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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.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Harvy Blanks (Cutler), Ray Anthony Thomas (Slow Drag) and Warner Miller (Levee) in a scene from the play.

Darren Setlow photo courtesy of Portland Stage Company

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Tina Fabrique as Ma Rainey enjoys a light moment during the recording session that’s the setting for Portland Stage’s production of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”

Darren Setlow photo courtesy of Portland Stage Company

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Mad Horse Theatre Company members Burke Brimmer and Janice Gardner star in “The School for Lies.”

James Hoban photo courtesy of Mad Horse Theatre Company

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Noelle LuSane is among a cast of seven in Good Theater’s “Clybourne Park.”

Photo courtesy of Good Theater

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Lucas O’Neil, Good Theater’s “Clybourne Park.”

Photo courtesy of Good Theater

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Bari Robinson, Good Theater’s “Clybourne Park.”

Photo courtesy of Good Theater

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