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Back In Black

Theatre Memphis inspects Ma Rainey's posterior; Playhouse does the same with Mozart.

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Ma Rainey spent a night in jail after police stormed her room and found it full of naked women performing lurid acts -- shocking, even in the Roaring '20s. But she was a Rock Star. Long before Bowie got his training bra, she was a strutting, ambisexual super-celebrity adorned head to toe in glitter, sequins, and gold coins. Even before Dietrich donned her first tuxedo for the cameras, Rainey put on men's clothes and posed flirting with two women to advertise her single "Prove It On Me."

Went out last night with a crowd of my friends,

They must have been women, 'cause I don't like no men.

Wear my clothes just like a fan,

Talk to gals just like any old man.

Rainey, who cut her teeth singing in traveling circuses and tent minstrel shows, shunned the smooth, urban jazz arrangements preferred by contemporaries like Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday in favor of slicked-up jug-band arrangements and belted her songs in a raw country-blues style. She defied conventional wisdom and controlled her own career. Paramount records grew from the subsidiary business of a furniture store to a major force in the recording and publishing industries almost entirely on the strength of Rainey's artistry.

Given the complexity of Rainey's character, then, it's hard to imagine why a typically fine playwright like August Wilson would choose to depict her only as a shrill and shrewish diva. But that is the case with Wilson's first major play, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, which is currently getting a rather wooden treatment at Theatre Memphis. In fact, Wilson spends very little time essaying Rainey's character at all, preferring to focus on her band, a group of talents too caught up in pontificating on their blackness to get in a proper rehearsal. Perhaps the playwright had something special in mind.

Instead of telling a traditional story, Wilson has taken a Brechtian path, creating characters whose primary function is to serve as one side of a multifaceted dialogue on the issues of race and identity. Without the benefit of a traditional, tension-based narrative, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom begs for precision and style. The characters, especially the band members, often define negative minstrel-show stereotypes as they drink, bullshit, bling-bling, and generally avoid the business of getting down to business. The actors should be allowed, even encouraged, to become clowns and to break the illusion in the play's most gripping moments. They should be allowed to use the stereotypes against themselves. The white record execs (in the spirit of Brecht's gods) are powerless without their talent (human servants), and their trickery and deceit are the result of a power struggle and are not the manifestation of intrinsic power. Theatre Memphis' plodding, too naturalistic approach to Ma Rainey's Black Bottom never generates the kind of heat that can transform debate into drama, and much of the comedy is lost in the soul-sucking slowness of it all. The fully functioning real-time clock set center stage only serves to remind us that minutes pass like hours in this tedious affair.

To be fair, there is not a bad performance in this show. Leisa Brown's willful if one-dimensional Ma Rainey stands out, as does Richard Sharp's Levee, a trumpet player with his eyes on the stars, his hand on a knife, and his mind on a scar a white man gave him. But even the best performances can be swallowed up by a bad or, in this case, exceedingly mediocre production.

Mozart, go to your room this instant!

Playhouse on the Square's production of Peter Schaffer's wonderful Amadeus suffers from many of the same problems that face Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. A glut of excellent performances never adds up to much at all.

As Salieri, the composer who offered his chastity and service to God in exchange for the gift of music only to witness the rise of a perverse genius called Mozart, Dave Landis gives the performance of a lifetime -- if, that is, his performance had been caught on film rather than committed to the stage. Everything he does is so right, but it is never allowed to grow to mythic size. And Amadeus is a play of mythic proportions, complete with a Greek chorus of whispering voices. The same can be said for John Maness' Mozart. He has all the right stuff, but, given the toned-down nature of the production, Mozart's scatological antics seem forced, not remotely appealing even in an iconoclastic to-hell-with-it way. Only Kyle Barnette as the foppish Emperor Joseph II and Stephen Swift as the blustering master mason Gottfried Van Swieten manage to be as large as the characters they inhabit.

Amadeus breaks the fourth wall in the sense that a good deal of information is passed directly on to the audience by way of narration and theatrical device. As is typical of Playhouse performances, this means the players get off the stage and act in the aisles. What may at some point have been an inventive choice has become tedious through repetition and seems less the tool of an inventive director than a crutch for an artist too lazy to create action on the stage.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom at Theatre Memphis through March 31st; Amadeus at Playhouse on the Square through April 21st.

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