Pulitzer prize-winning playwright August Wilson is the creator of the most monumental ongoing project in modern theater. When it’s completed, he will be the author of 10 – 10! – hugely ambitious works that thunderously address, decade by decade, the black experience in 20th-century America. With the ninth play of the cycle, Gem of the Ocean, set to debut in Chicago this spring, the time for Wilson revivals may be a bit premature. But most likely, there was no stopping this new Broadway production of his 1984 hit once Whoopi Goldberg’s formidable drawing power was harnessed to it.
Directed by Marion McClinton (who did a superb job with Wilson’s Jitney in 2000), the play takes place in 1927, inside a Chicago recording studio where real-life blues diva Ma Rainey (Goldberg) and her band have assembled, under the scrutiny of Rainey’s white agent and white producer. Given this setup, it’s not surprising that the play delves into the historic exploitation of black singers and musicians. But more acutely, it exposes the very architecture of racism, delineating how difficult it was for blacks to escape the shadow of their oppressors. Despite the play’s layered racial tensions, its most overt conflict courses between a set-in-her-ways Ma Rainey and Wilson’s fictional fellow musician Levee (Charles S. Dutton), a trumpeter with a new vision of jazz and a bitter need to succeed.
As written, this moving, funny, focused ensemble piece is less diffuse than Wilson’s more recent works (2001’s King Hedley II, 1996’s Seven Guitars); it might have served as a perfect intro into Wilson’s world if not for the night’s colliding stars. While Goldberg is a likable laugh-getting presence here, her casual ease, her very Whoopi-ness, dilutes our sense of Rainey’s dark subterranean pain and knowledge. And with her uninformed singing voice, Goldberg fails to become what she must: the spiritual centerpiece for the music. Considering the innate musicality of Wilson’s language – long on parables, lengthy jokes, and folklore – Goldberg’s shortfall is all the more unfortunate.
Dutton, who originated the role of Levee back in 1984, tends toward the overemphatic, as if straining to set things right. He huffs and puffs, percolates and palpitates, feverishly working the rhythms of the text. Though he’s effective in his big scenes, and especially chilling in his Act Two affront to God, Dutton seldom bends to the rest of the ensemble (led by the excellent Thomas Jefferson Byrd as philosophical piano man Toledo). Ultimately, this unsteady production fails to come together with one voice, undermining the vision of community that may well be Wilson’s greatest artistic contribution and motivating force.