The “mother of the blues” stands on stage in what looks like a music studio. A trombone, bass, trumpet and piano reverberate throughout the theater as anguish flows from Ma Rainey’s voice in the form of a blues song.
Love and lust, white managers’ exploitation of black musicians and a dangerous competition between band members is explored in the African American Theatre Arts Troupe’s (AATAT) play “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” which debuts Feb. 18.
The Stevenson Event Center transcends all ages and transplants audiences from UC Santa Cruz in 2016 to Chicago in the ‘20s — a time in the music industry when blues reigned in the minds of the restless.
Assistant director and third-year theater arts major Raney Diamond-Wilds hopes to give the audience Gertrude “Ma” Rainey’s real story behind the historically glamorized version. Rainey began performing at 14 and was recognized as the earliest female blues singer, who inspired poets like Langston Hughes and authors like Alice Walker.
“I want the audience to have fun, to come on this journey with us,” Wilds said. “But what I want the audience to take away is the understanding that we got from working on the show — how the music industry doesn’t show us all that goes on. All we see is what they want us to see.”
Women in the music industry have often been exploited for profit through their careers. The play exhibits a white manager controlling Ma Rainey’s image and peers into her romantic life, introducing moments with Dussie, Ma Rainey’s young and seductive lover who uses her for money and fame.
“Although Ma Rainey is not in the play as much [as the other characters], I still love the fact that it is centered around her,” Wilds said. “The performer she was, how she really was in person and how the music business used to be … and although we don’t like to talk about it, how it still is.”
AATAT is in its 24th year of performing heartwarming, soul-shattering works. In this year’s story, the theater group cast eight men and three women. The two-act play shows a glimpse of Ma Rainey’s life through how she handled personal and professional business, while simultaneously highlighting the conflicts of her male band members.
Wilds dedicated time to help the actors and actresses portray every character in a way she felt would represent the times.
Second-year Khadijat Dania dove into character as Ma Rainey during rehearsals. Ma Rainey, who demanded respect from all facets of her life, including her band members, didn’t take back-talk from anyone.
“She’s very quick, and short with people,” Dania said. “She does not let things test her. She’s very strict and to the point. My favorite line is — ‘They’re going to treat me how I want to be treated, no matter how much it hurts.’”
Jasmine Bajwa, a second-year business management and economics major who plays Dussie, said she feels different when she steps into character. Dussie’s character, seductive and mysterious, has no shame for playing her game.
“The love I have for Ma Rainey isn’t exactly genuine. I don’t have a lot of lines in the play, but when I talk to Ma Rainey, it’s usually to ask her for new shoes or to ask her for something. It’s a very materialistic relationship,” Bajwa said. “It’s clear that Ma Rainey only likes me for my body. And I only like her for her money.”
Dania explained how Ma Rainey’s exposure to the music industry at a young age made her aware of the ways in which she was used as a machine to produce profit. Dania related to the character by thinking about herself in the theater industry.
She wants audience members to thinking about the issues addressed in the play and connect them to a bigger picture.
“I want them to take the layers of messages in this play,” Dania said, “and try to place them in the modern time and see how the cycle of exploitation in music is still happening to black people.”
AATAT will perform “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” at the Stevenson Event Center on Feb. 18-21 at 7 p.m. Admission is free for UCSC students with a student ID. AATAT will also perform Feb. 27 at the Monterey Peninsula College.