Michele Powe (center) takes to the mic and gets the band ready in August Wilson’s award-winning play | Photos by Rūta Smith

After a string of artistic difficulties, the opportunity to tackle a dream project, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, one of August Wilson’s most acclaimed works, fell beautifully into Jamall Rawlinson’s lap. 

Rawlinson

“I’ve had a tough four or five years, as an artist, as a whole,” Rawlinson lamented while discussing the circumstances that led to him directing the play. Independent film projects fell through while COVID protocols slowed down the production of others. So when Rawlinson was approached about becoming a board member for Threshold’s South of Broadway Theatre Company, he leapt at the opportunity.

For his first choice of a show to direct for the company, Rawlinson knew he would choose Ma Rainey’s. Rawlinson has been a fan of the 1982 play since his college days, when he first started studying the works of August Wilson. And it turns out his timing was perfect: the show was adapted in 2020 to a critically acclaimed and Oscar-nominated film by Netflix.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a fictionalized account of actual figures from Black history. A group of musicians have gathered to play for a recording of the titular Ma Rainey. Ma is known for being difficult to work with, but she’s worth the effort to her white producers. Her band is made up of older men who are loyal to Ma, but the band is riled up by a musician named Levee. Young and impetuous, Levee longs to produce his own music.

“This play’s so cool,” Rawlinson said, adding that the piece has had a very personal effect on him over the years. “To me, the real lead character is Levee. I felt like I knew who he was at the start. Now, as a 41-year-old man, I definitely understand Levee’s struggle from beginning to end of his play.”

Rawlinson’s toughest challenges were in casting the show. He knew his Ma Rainey from day one: Michele Powe is a singer and actor who has collaborated with Rawlinson for years. Levee proved a difficult character to cast, until he found an up-and-coming actor named Logan Williams. 

Of taking the iconic role, Powe said, “This role is a realization of a dream because I always wanted to tell her story. Although my other roles required focus and research, I had to totally immerse myself to create and breathe life into Gertrude ‘Ma’ Rainey. I hope she is pleased.” Powe, an accomplished singer herself, has worked on replicating the rasp of Rainey’s vocals, which have been preserved in recordings nearly 100 years old.

Indeed, the March 10 opening will hold the distinction of being the first production at Threshold Repertory Theatre since COVID pandemic forced the early closing of Men on Boats in March 2020. As the calendar turned, plans for a return for Threshold continued to fall through. The set for Men on Boats sat, waiting for a chance to fully reopen and continue its postponed run. But the need to recast actors and scheduling conflicts with the director put an end to such hopes in 2021. The company has lain dormant ever since, with a website locked in time and a lobby full of storage.

A generous arrangement with landlords and support from board members allowed the company to keep their space through two full years of zero productions. 

“We didn’t know. For a full year, we didn’t know,” said Paul O’Brien, Threshold board president. “Our landlords were fairly generous with us. We were able to pull through. 

Don Brandenburg, Threshold’s managing artistic director, said he saw other companies losing their spaces or struggling with online content and weighed the options for Threshold. He and O’Brien decided it was more beneficial to simply keep the lights on until they could bet on a surefire hit.

With Threshold ready to open its door again, O’Brien’s chat with South of Broadway CEO and artistic director Mary Gould hit at the perfect time for both companies. South of Broadway was leaving its former home in Park Circle and looking for a temporary space. “Partnering with other theaters has been one of my ambitions, and I’ve found it a little more frustrating than I expected,” O’Brien said. “But this just seemed like a perfect match. Once we started talking, things just unrolled.”

The Men on Boats set has finally been replaced with the red brick walls of the recording studio basement from August Wilson’s play. Walking around the stage with Brandenburg and O’Brien, their excitement matches that of Rawlinson. The play itself is about preservation of art, but this production represents a rebirth for so many of the people bringing it to the stage.

“I wanted something small, intimate. I wanted everyone that’s there to feel like they’re a part of the show,” Rawlinson said.

The play opens at Threshold Repertory Theatre on March 10.