Set in a Chicago recording studio in 1927, a group of musicians anxiously await the arrival of legendary blues singer Ma Rainey, who is known for her music and her attitude. What transpires in this studio is a fiery battle of will and identity as soulful and soul stirring as blues itself. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is a gripping drama from Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning playwright August Wilson.
Anderson entered the story like gangbusters, his face and body language portraying vigor and excitement about Levee’s future, especially his new music. Anderson played him as strong and self-assured and because of his excitement we began to buy-in to Levee’s dream. As Levee got knocked down by resistance, though, Anderson would shrink physically and emotionally a little. Through stance and quavering voice we witnessed Levee sinking into the blues and finally into misery and shame over his own plight. Anderson was playing a tragic hero, flawed but hopeful. We saw Levee dealing with his deepest demons, fighting desperately to dispel them, but watching them latch on at every turn. In time this escalated to full-blown crisis and we saw Anderson explode with a violence no one expected.
Anderson gives a blazing performance, drawing us so powerfully into his story by the end of the first act we aren’t sure what he’ll have left for the second. No worries, apparently. Fiercely truthful performances from this four-man “band” of actors carry Wilson’s passionate story all the way. In the end, actors and audience are left looking at the scene onstage—all of us together, shocked and wondering and silent.
Anderson gives telling insights into Levee, with sparks flashing and building under increasingly strained smiles. He makes you feel Levee’s frustration as he’s thwarted by the white producers and managers who control the music industry, by older band members who insist he stop changing arrangements, and by Ma who, in words reminiscent of the emperor criticizing Mozart in Amadeus, rebukes him for playing “too many notes.”