‘Ma Rainey’ a great start to Portland Stage season

Portland Stage is feeling the blues as the company kicks off its 40th season. But that’s a good thing.

The venerable theatrical institution has mounted a production of a very bluesy August Wilson play, one of a series the late author wrote assessing the African-American experience in the 20th century.

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” gives a fictional account of the real-life title character’s day spent in a Chicago recording studio in the spring of 1927. Wilson’s portrayal of this seminal blues singer’s struggle with the burgeoning, white-controlled music industry and her band members’ quest for dignity amid confrontations with old and new demons has been recognized as a truly riveting theatrical experience since its debut in 1984.

Of course, like the music that pervades the drama, it has to be played with feeling. After all, as Ma Rainey says in her famous line from the play, blues is “life’s way of talking.”

Portland Stage has filled Wilson’s richly conceived roles with talented performers, mostly new to the local scene. The show provides a lot to think about but, as reviewed at Friday’s opening performance, it does so with much style and spirit. This is definitely one that shouldn’t be missed.

The title character, played with all the high-maintenance flamboyance of a true diva by Tina Fabrique, centers the overall action of the play. She wants everything the way she wants it because she knows she’s got what the white record company people want — a voice that will sell records. Fabrique sings very well, though not enough, one could argue, in the 2½-hour play.

Equally important to the play’s take on black America in the 1920s is the action that takes place on the lower level of the set (artfully designed by Anita Stewart). There the four band members rehearse and discuss issues of identity through personal recollections, consider their African roots and trade ideas about how to deal with a changing world that may only view blacks as the “leftovers” of history.

All this serious stuff is rendered through Wilson’s amazingly natural, and often quite funny, dialogue by actors Harvy Blanks, Kevin T. Carroll, Ray Anthony Thomas and Warner Miller.

Miller, particularly, takes the role of the edgy, forward-looking Levee and brings him along to his fate with much charisma. The others are not far behind in ensemble work, which is just about as good as it gets.

Nyahal?llie and Winston Duke convincingly form Ma’s colorful entourage, while Tom Bloom, Corey Gagne and Tony Reilly add weight as the establishment figures.

A very good play, very well performed under the direction of Jade King Carroll, makes “Ma Rainey” one of the best starts to the theater season in recent memory.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.