Bill Gleason

Bill Gleason is an Associate Professor at the University of Minnesota in the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology. He's also a fellow at the U's Supercomputer Institute. Read more about Gleason.

'Ma Rainey' Plays the Guthrie

Posted by: Bill Gleason under Society, Education and literacy, Politics Updated: February 19, 2011 - 11:18 AM

 

Whenever I see another August Wilson play featured at the Minneapolis Guthrie Theater, I always smile.

It was not always so.  For 12 years one of the Guthrie’s former directors, Garland Wright refused to admit Wilson to the Minneapolis pantheon. As the Star-Tribune put it:

“[Wright] was loath to have Wilson’s words on the Guthrie stage on the premise that the theater was devoted to classics (never mind that the Guthrie also staged such contemporary playwrights as Arthur Miller and David Hare).”

Meanwhile Wilson’s plays were taken to places like the Yale Rep for performance. Wilson’s plays have appeared on Broadway with heavy hitters like James Earl Jones. Not that the Penumbra artists are light hitters: James Craven, T. Mychael Rambo, Abdul Salaam El Razzac… The names trip off the tongue like those of an all-star professional team.

Joe Dowling, the Guthrie’s current director, has made amends for early disrespect of Wilson’s work.  The new Jean Nouvel Guthrie building is a sparkling gem along the Mississippi that boasts a wall-size picture of Wilson, along with other famous playwrights.

Another aspect of this production that makes my eye’s twinkle is that Jevetta Steele plays Ma. The Steeles are a well-known music family with a strong identification as gospel musicians.  As Lou puts it, Jevetta is a true diva. But Ms. Steele’s background at  first gave her problems with the language used in Wilson’s plays, as well as the fact that Ma is a lesbian.

In Ms. Steel’s words:

“I disagreed with his use of the N-word. We’re required, as artists, to take a higher road—to educate and to enlighten. August … tried to keep it true to the period and to the people of that time.”

“The other part of this piece that was difficult is that Ma Rainey is a lesbian. … I knew that if I took this on, I had to convince people that I’m a lesbian. I’ve got to sell it. I knew I’d done it when my daughter came and saw it in Phoenix. My sister, who is a lesbian … she, too, was blown away. … She said, “You did it with elegance. You didn’t go as raunchy as you could have.”

Finally I note that my beloved colleague, Lou Bellamy, directs this work.  Lou is the founder of the Penumbra Theater in St. Paul and has done more for what I’ll call Black Theater than just about anyone I can think of.  He encouraged Wilson, nurtured him, and portrayed his work in authentic fashion. This is still the case.  Although I’ve seen Wilson’s work at the Guthrie, it gives me an odd feeling – almost like watching a movie. At the Penumbra in St. Paul, the audience seems to be right there in the play.  This theater is a much smaller and intimate space, and seems so much more alive and real. Nevertheless it is thrilling to see Wilson’s plays finally put on in the big house.

Lou will be retiring from his University of Minnesota activities this year, but not from the theater. If you haven’t already, have a look at the video. The man is a treasure.

My favorite memory of Lou is when we stood outside the administration building, Morrill Hall, during a demonstration against the closing of General College.  Lou stood in the cold, dressed as usual in impeccable fashion, including his trademark pork-pie hat. He calmly and dispassionately explained why he was against the closing of the college, which was closed.

But Lou spoke out.

You can’t lose ‘em all, Lou, and you are leaving the University at the top of your game.

Godspeed.

An edited version of this piece originally appeared on the Chronicle of HIgher Education Brainstorm Blog.

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