Arnetia Walker is interviewed by WBGO radio’s Doug Doyle in a recent event at Two River Theater. The stage and screen actress steps/sings into the title role of MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM, the season-opening show that goes up in previews this weekend. (Photos by Carmen Balentine)
It’s a more-or-less annual highlight of the new season at Two River Theater: a further exploration into the work of the late August Wilson, the celebrated African American playwright whose “Century Cycle” of dramas — ten somewhat interconnected plays, each one set in a different decade and illuminating another aspect of the black experience in America — has apparently become an unstated but ongoing project at the Bridge Avenue performing arts space.
Just as they did with last September’s production of “Seven Guitars,” the folks at Two River are kicking off the new 2016-2017 slate of shows with a bluesy keynote from the house of Wilson: the playwright’s 1984 Broadway breakthrough “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Going up in previews beginning this Saturday night, September 10, and set inside a recording studio in 1927 Chicago, the music-infused ensemble drama is a bit unusual, in that it’s only one of the Cycle that’s not based in Wilson’s hometown of Pittsburgh. And, as the title suggests, it’s the only one of the ten that boasts a central character drawn from real life.
Left to right: Co-stars Michael Cumpsty and Brandon J. Dirden joined director Ruben Santiago-Hudson and Arnetia Walker, for an August radio event promoting Two River Theater’s production of August Wilson’s MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM.
That would be Gertrude “Ma” Rainey (1886-1939), the pioneer female blues singer known for such signatures as “See See Rider Blues,” “Bo Weevil Blues,” and of course “The Black Bottom,” the dance hit at the heart of the recording session depicted in the play. Over the course of the action, Ma keeps her musicians Cutler, Levee, Slow Drag and Toledo waiting on her like Godot — then arrives with entourage in tow; exacerbating conflict between her band, her family members, her white manager and the owner of the studio, even as she ties the room together with her outside personality and undeniable talent. Feelings get hurt, careers are jeopardized, personal tensions reach a potentially dangerous boiling point — and Wilson illustrates how the places where art and magic are made can be akin to the “killin’ floor” of the local sausage factory.
Stepping into the vivid title role is veteran stage-screen actress Arnetia Walker, whose career encompasses co-starring roles on TV series like “Popular” and “Nurses,” in addition to a Broadway resume that includes the distinction of having played all of the lead female roles in “Dreamgirls.” She’s also, by some serendipity, native to Ma Rainey’s hometown of Columbus, GA — and she’s working here with director Ruben Santiago-Hudson, the Tony winner (and onetime associate of August Wilson) who previously brought Wilson’s “Jitney” and “Two Trains Running” to the Two River stage.
She’ll also be working with a cast that features a couple of frequent guest artists at Two River. Appearing as ambitious but troubled trumpeter Levee is Brandon J. Dirden, a familiar face from television (“The Americans,” “The Get Down”) and Broadway (as Martin Luther King Jr. in “All the Way”) whose numerous projects in Red Bank included a well-received directorial debut on “Seven Guitars.” Making his first-ever appearance in an August Wilson work is Michael Cumpsty, the Shakespeare specialist (an Obie winner as “Hamlet”) and Tony nominee (“End of the Rainbow”) who takes on the part of Ma’s manager Irvin — and who, beginning in November, stars as King Henry II in the Two River production of James Goldman’s “The Lion in Winter.”
Also featured are two other veterans of August Wilson productions at Two River: Brian D. Coats (“Seven Guitars”) and James A. Williams (“Two Trains,” “Jitney”), along with seasoned pros/ Red Bank rookies Chanté Adams, Harvy Blanks, Bob Mackasek,Marcel Spears, and Peter Van Wagner. The Drama Desk at redbankgreen spoke to Arnetia Walker following an August 18 live event with radio station WBGO, during which she wowed the crowd with her own rendition of “The Black Bottom.”
redbankgreen: So this is your first time working at Two River Theater; and from what we can see the first time in an August Wilson play…and you’ve pulled down the one role that’s directly based on a real person. Tell us how much of a blast it is to be playing Ma Rainey.
ARNETIA WALKER: Oh, it’s a wonderful role. The play is about power, and Ma knows her power; she knew she had something that people wanted, and she wasn’t giving it up. Unlike poor Levee, who gives his power away.
She was smart, you know; such a strong personality. Without her we’d have no Aretha, none of the great soul music, pop music divas really…Ma was the first. She was a strong and confident black woman who also was not afraid to express her sexuality, at a time when women just didn’t do things her way. She had a business sense too, and even after she retired from performing, she ran some theaters in Columbus.
In the play, she blows in like a hurricane, and from that point she’s the center of the universe. She lets the guys know who’s boss; really gets up in it with some of them…but it’s not a one-note portrayal, she could be a nice person, helping her nephew who stutters and has trouble communicating with people.
Even as well known as she was, Ma Rainey’s not really a household name or famous face to most people these days…so we’re supposing that there’s a little bit of freedom and leeway in how you embody her onstage. In the radio interview event that you did at the theater, you suggested that you were still getting to know about her life and art at the time; that it was very much a learning process for you…
I really got to know her, and her music, when I got involved with this play…I got to know the woman she was, through her music. As I said, that music was so different from anything I had grown up with. I was a big fan of the Supremes, Arethra, that sort of thing, when I was growing up, and I continued to be into all kinds of music…when I’m driving I like to listen to classical; when I’m gardening I like to hear jazz…it’s good for the birds and the flowers! I have a 20 year old son, who every now and then will tell me to “listen to this,” and I do my best to stay current on things. But getting to know Ma’s music really opened up another world that I hadn’t been very aware of…it’s a path into this play, into her life. And without it being what we’d think of as a musical, the music is still very important to this play.
You also come to Two River Theater with a pretty formidable list of stage credits, including a long association with “Dreamgirls,” another show that we have to imagine was really close to your heart…
I started when I was a teenager, when I got cast in a production of a play by Lorraine Hansberry — not “A Raisin in the Sun,” the one she’s remembered for, but “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window,” starring Hal Linden from “Barney Miller.” I would sing, like a classical chorus, between the scenes. It was a thrill to be involved with the show, but of course on opening night we also got our closing notice! It only ran for a handful of performances. After that I was in “Two Gentlemen of Verona” (the landmark 1970s musicalization of the Shakespeare play from “Hair” composer Galt McDermot) with Raul Julia, Clifton Davis…Jeff Goldblum was one of the people in the chorus!
I did other projects on Broadway; I understudied Stephanie Mills in “The Wiz”…and I’d go out to California and do TV and film roles. By the time that “Dreamgirls” opened in New York, I was out there working at Disneyland to pay the rent. I had just enough money for a plane ticket back east…I managed to get a standing room ticket to the show, for 10 dollars. When the show began…and when Jennifer Holliday sang “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going”…I had never seen anything like it. I told myself right then, I’ve got to be a part of this!
It was a little while before I did get to be a part of it, but one day Michael Bennett (the late and legendary director who helmed the show’s original Broadway production and tour) called me and said Arnetia, I need you to be in my show. Of course I was dying to be in it…but the catch was, would I learn all of the parts, because he didn’t know which one he wanted me to play! But then that’s how I got to be part of “Dreamgirls” for as long as I was; how I eventually played every one of The Dreams on stage.
I’m always the go-to person, I guess…I tell people that I always wind up joining the shows after the Tonys are given out…but it’s about the work. It’s wonderful to be doing what you love.
For this show, you’re assimilating into a group of people, many of whom have worked with each other before, and who have become sort of an August Wilson stock company for Ruben Santiago-Hudson. How’s it been stepping into that situation? Since Ruben actually worked closely with Wilson back when he was alive, has he helped you gain a perspective on the playwright?
Ruben is a character in his own right. He has so many stories, and the stories are a show in themselves. They illuminate the thing that we’re working on. It’s like I’m kind of inside August Wilson’s world, when I’m in rehearsal with Ruben. He put together a group of very talented, very nice people for this show; I know some of them he’s worked with quite a lot in the past, but when you’re new to the group you still feel very much like a part of the family.
I teach theater to kids when I’m not on stage, and it’s such a high for me to help guide kids to tap into their own creativity…to get out of their own way. And that enthusiasm for the work comes through here as well.
Any thoughts on the Two River people and the theater itself? Under the current artistic director and managing director, the place has really been establishing itself as a major regional playhouse…and one that’s really just a short jaunt outside the city, when you get to know the neighborhood. How has your experience here in Red Bank had an effect on your work?
I lived the life of a New York actor myself, so I know what it’s like…but even now, after a month there, it’s too fast, too dirty, too noisy, too crowded for me. I appreciate the change of scenery that working here offers…to be able to work at this level, in a place that’s got a different pace than the city, is great.
I enjoy doing things like the outdoor party they had for this show at Two River Theater…there’s such a strong sense of working with the community here, of bringing people into what you’re doing. I’m likin’ Red Bank…people smile at you, say hello!
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” goes up in previews on Saturday, September 10; opening on Friday, September 16 and continuing with a mix of matinee and evening performances through October 9. Take it here to reserve tickets ($20 – $65).