To people of a certain age and time, August Wilson was more than just a name—he was palpable, a peer, a family member, a person that Pittsburgh could interact with.
To Pittsburgh’s younger generation, August Wilson’s name may be known, but the significance and importance of his plays and accomplishments may not be as recognized.
That’s why, for Vanessa German, it’s paramount for the legendary playwright’s masterpieces to live on—and that young people experience them.
“All human beings should spend time ingesting the work of masters; August Wilson is for all of us in our complex and dimensional humanity,” German, a noted vocalist and performer, told the New Pittsburgh Courier.
German is playing the lead role of “Ma Rainey” in the play, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater Company, 937 Liberty Ave., Sept. 14 to Oct. 1. As the seasoned generation knows, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is part of Wilson’s ten-play American Century Cycle, now seen as a staple of American theater.
The production will be directed by Mark Clayton Southers.
Businesswoman and entertainer Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, known as the Mother of the Blues, was the most popular blues singer/songwriter of the 1920s. According to a press release announcing the production, Rainey is considered to be the first woman to introduce blues into her performances.
“For Black people—we need, we must see us, we must see and hear our own stories from our own mouths,” German said. “We must look into the mirrors of one another’s eyes, especially Black people on this land. So, in our journey into our own story August gives us Ma Rainey. He opens for us a telling of the blues, a telling of the simultaneity of time—he gives us a telling of our quilted nature.”
German added: “Ma is important for us to see because we are this story, these are our people, this story is our neighborhood. So, if not for the blues being sung by a wide, dark-skinned brown woman, then a tennis racquet in the hands of a Williams sister” may have never come to fruition.
German is enthralled with the deep meaning of the songs that originate from blues, and the stories that come from it.
Ma Rainey, “this story of a glorious great and the world that she travels within, and the story of what it takes to bring the songs up and out. When I say ‘song,’ I mean the song of the soul,” German said. “What happens when the song is trapped? When the song is confused? When the song cannot even hear its own self? All of these questions come into breath for me in Ma Rainey. This is why I think that people should see this play—they get a step-back perspective and they get to sit and feel in a theater full of hearts beating to the same rhythm. This is a special thing.”
“The blues is an integral part of August Wilson’s legacy, a legacy we proudly continue through our programming at the August Wilson Center African American Cultural Center,” said Janis Burley Wilson, August Wilson Center CEO and president, in a press release.
The August Wilson Center is hosting its first Highmark Blues and Heritage Festival, Sept. 29-30. “With a new event…it was only right that we take the opportunity to showcase how big of a role the blues played in Wilson’s life, and what better way to tell that story than through Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom with the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company.”
Support for Ma Rainey is provided by The Pittsburgh Foundation, The Heinz Endowments Small Arts Initiative, Regional Asset District, Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council, Richard King Mellon Foundation, August Wilson Center, The Opportunity Fund, and Advancing Black Arts in Pittsburgh Fund.
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”
Presented Sept. 14 through Oct. 1 at
Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater Company,
937 Liberty Ave.
Performances are 8 p.m. on Thursday and Friday,
2 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Saturday and 3 p.m. on Sunday.
Tickets are $35, or $20 at the door for students with I.D.
Tickets are available at www.pghplaywrights.org
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