July 23, 2009
Anastasia and I have been poring over a wealth of material for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom—biographies on Ma, pre-histories of the blues (including minstrel and tent shows, the circuit from which Ma emerged), social conditions of black Chicago in the twenties, names and dates of the recording industry, etc. It’s easy to get lost in the research, but at the end of the day you have to discern what is really useful for the actors, the audience, the show. It’s also easy to forget that Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is not a historical portrait or a sociological analysis, but the artistic expression of a singular imagination, August Wilson. I was reminded of this yesterday when our director, Ron, began to speak off the top of his head about August’s career and how Black Bottom rewrote the expectations of popular drama when it hit Broadway in 1984. The play is not about blues music but about people who play blues music, who live it and were born of it. Here’s August Wilson in a 1989 interview with Bill Moyers:
The blues are important primarily because they contain the cultural responses of blacks in America to the situation that they find themselves in. Contained in the blues is a philosophical system at work. You get the ideas and attitudes of the people as part of the oral tradition. This is a way of passing along information. If you’re going to tell someone a story, and if you want to keep information alive, you have to make it memorable so that the person hearing it will go tell someone else. This is how it stays alive. The music provides you an emotional reference for the information, and it is sanctioned by the community in the sense that if someone sings the song, other people sing the song. They keep it alive because they sanction the information it contains.
He’s talking about the blues, of course, but he could just as easily be describing his own cycle of plays, plays that seek to preserve the information or experience of African-American people in the twentieth-century in a compelling art form. It is an important choice that, like in the program for The Piano Lesson, we are devoting the limited space in our program not to historical background but to an oral record of August Wilson’s impact on the theater and its artists today.
July 13, 2009
July 8, 2009
I missed the Chicago Blues Festival and I will also have to miss Blues on the North Shore this Friday, June 12. This is an interesting festival because it celebrates the 30th anniversary of Earwig Music, a landmark Chicago blues record label sporting names like Sunnyland Slim, Big Jack Johnson, the Jelly Roll Kings, and David “Honeyboy” Edwards. You might have heard about Earwig, like I did, in that Eight Forty-Eight story on WBEZ.
I’m just beginning to pick at the historical research for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and I’m already overwhelmed by the vast amount of information that’s available. What I’m finding is less a history of the blues than a raw archaeology: of artists, venues, events, styles, anecdotes, sub-movements and spin-offs. The bulk of it is going to be useless for Ron OJ and the actors, no matter how interesting… but hopefully this blog will benefit from any dramaturgical table scraps that I or Anastasia (our dramaturgy intern!) pick out.
July 8, 2009
This coming weekend is the last chance you’ll get to see Oedipus by The Hypocrites across town at the The Building Stage. The promenade-style production is directed by our artistic friend Sean Graney, who is directing Court’s upcoming The Mystery of Irma Vep. Most of the Court staff are going to see it this weekend (and Jack claims to have seen it multiple times already)—we’ll see you there, yes?