“God can kiss my ass,” says Levee, the young, ambitious, and angry trumpet player in August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (onstage at the Mark Taper Forum through October 16, 2016).
Playing Levee, said Jason Dirden, who takes on the role in our production, is “scary but also a lot of fun. He’s unedited. He’s very impulsive. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t think before he speaks.”
Wayne Mackins-Harris, a sophomore at Fordham University in New York City, nodded along as Dirden talked about the role, actor-to-actor. Mackins-Harris, who is majoring in theatre at Fordham, also played the role of Levee onstage at the Taper, in the 2015 August Wilson Monologue Competition Los Angeles Regional Finals. He reprised the role at Broadway’s August Wilson Theatre in the National Finals. Home for summer vacation, Mackins-Harris jumped at the chance to interview Dirden about his preparation for the role and about the character.
It quickly became evident that Levee had spoken to both men almost instantly.
Dirden first saw the show at age 11. “I probably shouldn’t have been seeing it,” he said. “But it was the first play that struck a chord with me—something about the way these people spoke.” He knew once he started acting, in the 10TH grade, that it was a role he had to play.
Mackins-Harris, who is coincidentally teaching himself to play trumpet, asked Dirden about his preparation for the musical aspect of the role: “How’s your embouchure?”
While they both agreed that getting a hang of playing the high G note is painful, Dirden said that his goal is simply for the audience to see him as “a trumpet player who knows how to act.”
“That’s what I’m talking about!” said Mackins-Harris, who asked about the rest of the preparation Dirden had been putting in before the start of rehearsals.
“You don’t know what’s going to come out of his mouth,” said Dirden of Levee. “Playing that character is liberating,” even inspirational. “He’s that genius, and no one understands him.” Dirden, who was wearing a cap emblazoned with August Wilson’s signature, added, “Learning August Wilson’s dialogue is a heavy task.” The monologues in particular require a lot of preparation, he said. “You want to approach it as a student. It’ll be a challenge.” The role is a “tour de force,” said Dirden. “Levee gets to experience every single emotion possible in this play…you don’t get that many opportunities like this.” Wilson, he added, “is my Shakespeare.”
“He’s a historian,” said Mackins-Harris, “but he does it through people you know.” Which makes Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom startlingly contemporary at times. “How necessary is it for Levee’s voice to be heard in today’s day and age?” asked Mackins-Harris, pointing to the racial and ethnic divides that persist in this country.
“His voice is still being heard in a generation of people who are growing up not trusting certain sectors of society,” said Dirden. He pointed out that the word “anger” that is often used to describe this generation—and Levee—is too general. What many people understand as “anger” is really the desperation of Levee and others like him to be heard and understood. “There are many Levees walking around America and the world.”
Dirden added that one of the conversations the play brings up is how black people are viewed by whites and in white America—be it in the music business or in society as a whole. The play’s black characters believe that white America doesn’t see or respect them as equals. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is set in 1927. Now fast forward 90 years…does that conversation sound familiar? Just look at Black Lives Matter.
“I think on a certain level Levee is the 1927 Kanye West,” said Dirden. “He’s that brash. He’s that confident about his skill.”
Mackins-Harris got excited; it was clear that this spoke to his understanding of the role, too. “He’s a genius, he’s innovative,” he said of West. The more people don’t get it, the harder he’s going to work.
“There’s a piece of Levee in Kanye, and a piece of Kanye in Levee,” said Dirden.
Time was short; Dirden has a trumpet rehearsal to get to. So Mackins-Harris wrapped up the conversation by asking what Dirden would like audiences to get from Levee and the play that they could apply to their daily lives.
“When they see a young man walking down the street, I want them to be open enough to understand him,” said Dirden. “Maybe even to actually listen to his story.” At his core, “Levee is a good person trying to move the world and music forward.”
That resonated with Mackins-Harris, as did Dirden’s closing words: “August Wilson doesn’t write bad people.”