New Haarlem Arts Theatre (NHAT), the professional theater company of City College of New York (CCNY), will open its second season June 14 to July 8 with "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" by August Wilson, directed by Eugene Nesmith and starring Johnnie Mae as Ma.
This electrifying drama, set in Chicago during the Harlem Renaissance, explores the blues, what it means to be an artist, and race relations in America. The play's epic voice speaks eloquently about the nature of our culture, the struggles of artists and how different generations have perceived the opportunities available to them: opportunities which reflected changes in the society with regard to power dynamics and race.
The title refers to a song of the same title by Ma Rainey referring to the Black Bottom dance. Rainey, an early, seminal recording artist, is called The Mother of the Blues. This play is set in a Chicago recording studio in 1927, where band members are waiting to record a new album with her. She is portrayed as an imperious, commanding star who is nevertheless realistic and connected to the tender origins of her music. Arriving late to the session, she finally appears with her entourage. She immediately comes into conflict with the studio executives and with her own young, hotheaded trumpeter named Levee, who would transform her title song from what he calls "jug band music" to a newer, more popular swing style. She is the "first," and in being so, has to follow her heart. Her insistence that her stuttering nephew, Sylvester, perform the spoken introduction creates more mayhem. Rainey is a diva in the studio, but she knows that when she leaves the sacred recording session, she cannot even hail a cab in the streets of Chicago. Her conflicts with the session producers and Levee steadily build to a tragic climax. Frank Rich, in his introduction to the play, likens it to Eugene O'Neill's "The Iceman Cometh," tracing how the two plays are marked by claustrophobia, a slow-fuse dramatic structure, meaty arias, a devastating conclusion and the authors' identification with those who are betrayed by the American dream. The play was developed at The O'Neill Theater Center in 1982 and was presented on Broadway in 1984-5 and 2003.
The title role of Ma Rainey will be played by Johnnie Mae, who is well-known as Louanne, the notorious housemaid in HBO's "Boardwalk Empire." She has performed with the Classical Theatre of Harlem, New Federal Theatre and National Black Theatre and appeared last summer in NHAT's debut production, "Blues for Mister Charlie." She won an AUDELCO Award for Best Supporting Actress in "Why Old Ladies Cry at Weddings" and "What Would Jesus Do?" She appears regularly in TV shows including Showtime's "The Big C," NBC's "30 Rock," FX's "Louie" and all three incarnations of "Law & Order."
The cast also includes Reginald L. Wilson, Joresa Blount, Rollessia Hurd-Rosa, Branden Baskin, Michael Anthony, Luther Wells, Peter Jay Fernandez, Steve Macari, Dennis Jordan, Mikell Pinckney and Mike Metzel.
Choreographer is Otis Sallid, who has been an actor-dancer in numerous Broadway companies, conceived the Broadway show "Smokey Joe's Cafe" and choreographed the 2006 Emmy Awards, among others. He is a noted collaborator with Spike Lee, directs for TV, creates award-winning music videos and writes and choreographs for a long list of celebrities.
New Haarlem Arts Theatre (NHAT) is a professional theater uptown that aims to rank among the best in the country. It presents bold theatrical works that express the true history, culture, and diversity of America. Under Eugene Nesmith, founding Artistic Director, a management team was formed last year to build and sustain a vibrant cultural institution in partnership with City College of New York (CCNY) to offer a home for a theater company in which emerging professional actors from the CCNY community work alongside veteran artists of distinction. NHAT works to unite students and local residents in a range of programming that addresses the aspirations of the unique and culturally essential neighborhood that is Harlem. Productions encourage artistic freedom, risk taking and bold experimentation. NHAT also strives to attract audiences from around the City to Harlem again.