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Lillias White Plays the Mother of the Blues in August Wilson's 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom'

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Glynn Turman and Lillias White in August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” at the Mark Taper Forum.

Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Lillias White has wanted to play Ma Rainey for a long time.

There’s a lot for her to love in the role of the title character in August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (onstage at the Mark Taper Forum through October 16, 2016), who in real life was known as the “mother of the blues”: the respect Wilson gives musicians; the blend of acting and singing the part requires; the example Ma Rainey sets as a black woman with serious business acumen who demanded to be treated well; the light this play shines on a period when it could be dangerous to be African-American; and the humor Wilson injects into a dark story. And as a bonus, this production reunites her with many members of the cast and creative team of Center Theatre Group’s 2013 production of August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, also at the Taper.

White has immersed herself in Rainey’s backstory in preparation for the role, reading about her life and times, looking at photos of the clothing of the period, and listening to the music that might have come out of a recording session like the one at the center of this story.

"Ma Rainey was very good at what she did. She was a businesswoman. And she refused to be disrespected or treated badly," said White. Rainey was born in Georgia in 1886 and made a name for herself performing with black vaudeville troupes that toured the American South. “No doubt she witnessed a lot of terrible things that happened in the South during that period,” said White. “It was a dangerous time for black people who were free, and who knew and understood what that really meant, but who still didn’t get the treatment they deserved—or the respect.”

White was first introduced to August Wilson’s work 20 years ago, in 1996, when she saw her friend Keith David on Broadway in Seven Guitars. (David, who plays Slow Drag in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, also appeared with White in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.) She was immediately fascinated by Wilson and his work. “I love the way he exposes the black experience in America,” she said.“I really enjoy how he injects a sense of humor into these sometimes horrific stories—or horrific experiences—that black Americans have been through over the centuries. And he doesn’t make light of it, but he finds moments of humor.”

Wilson’s work also speaks to White as a musician. “He acknowledges and respects music and musicians. I think that he understood how vital it was to have musicians, to have music, in the lives of African-Americans,” she said.

“I feel like the music is kind of a cotton on some of the wounds that have been inflicted on African-Americans in this country. It’s a balm. It helps the healing process, which is ongoing.” White, a musical theatre veteran of four decades, spent the weeks before arriving in Los Angeles singing in concert performances around the country—in New York City, Orlando, and Massachusetts. Playing Ma Rainey gives her a chance to both sing and act; concerts aside, she has been focused on the latter lately thanks to Baz Luhrmann’s new Netflix series, The Get Down, where she plays a notorious club owner and drug boss in South Bronx in the 1970s. “I’m in a play that I wish had more music,” she joked about Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. “But I really am loving the fact that this is an acting role primarily.”

She is full of high praise and admiration for her fellow actors. “It’s a great cast,” she said. And Phylicia Rashad is a “wonderful director” who “has a very quiet, gentle strength and understanding of the material that helps put things in perspective and helps the actors to move through with a certain kind of grace and power and freedom.”

For White, freedom and the lack thereof are ultimately at the center of Ma Rainey’s story. “A lot of people don’t know enough about the history of African-Americans in this society, and the impact that slavery has had, the impact that racism has had and is still having,” said White. Coming away from this play, “I want audiences to have an understanding of what it was like being this woman, what it was like being these people in this time.”

She thinks younger audiences will be particularly impacted by this show. “I think it’s a great play for younger people of all ethnicities to experience because there are lots of great stories within the story of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom that are compelling and thought-provoking and hopefully will spur the interests of young people to really dig into the history of this country as it pertains to black Americans,” she said. She pointed out that this is important to her character—who brings her nephew Sylvester and a young woman named Dussie Mae into the recording studio—as well. “The fact that she has two young people with her, and she’s kind of showing them how she gets along on a daily basis…is important,” said White. “Because they need to see a woman—a black woman—being treated well, and being respected.”

White is looking forward to four Student Matinee performances with local high school students in the audience. But every performance of this play is going to be meaningful.“It’s really nice to be able to do this kind of work, and present this kind of truth, on the stage,” she said.

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