Despite the presence of Academy Award winner Whoopi Goldberg and Charles S. Dutton, who starred in the original Broadway run, the revival of Wilson’s drama failed to find an audience. Previews began Jan. 22 at the Royale Theatre with an official opening on Feb. 6; the limited run was originally scheduled to play through June 29. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom will have played 14 previews and 69 regular performances.
It was a bumpy road for the much-in-the-news production. During the preview period, three of the show's actors were let go: Louis Zorich replaced George Di Cenzo in the role of Sturdyvant, Thomas Jefferson Byrd replaced Dick Anthony Williams as Toledo and Jack Davidson replaced Joe Siravo in the role of Irvin. Several previews were also canceled due to the hospitalization of the show's director and one of its actors. Carl Gordon, who plays Cutler, missed a few shows when he burst a blood vessel in his leg, and director Marion McClinton was also hospitalized at one point for extremely low potassium levels, “related to a continuing kidney and high blood-pressure problem.”
Set in 1927 Chicago, the complete Ma Rainey’s cast features Whoopi Goldberg as Ma Rainey, Charles S. Dutton as Levee, with Louis Zorich (Sturdyvant), Jack Davidson (Irvin), Carol Gordon (Cutler), Thomas Jefferson Byrd (Toledo), Stephen McKinley Henderson (Slow Drag), Tony Cucci (Policeman), Heather Alicia Simms (Dussie Mae) and Anthony Mackie (Sylvester).
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, August Wilson's first work to arrive on Broadway, is a powerful account of a blues singer and the effect racism has on her life and career, and how anger bubbles inside musicians who are part of her world. Wilson followed Ma Rainey's with Fences, Joe Turner's Come and Gone, The Piano Lesson, Two Trains Running, Seven Guitars and King Hedley II.
The Royale Theatre is located in New York City at 242 West 45th Street.
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom opened at Broadway's Cort Theatre in Oct. 1984, playing 276 performances before closing in June 1985. Featuring direction by Lloyd Richards, the play cast Theresa Merritt in the title role. The remainder of the company featured John Carpenter, Lou Criscuolo, Scott Davenport-Richards, Charles S. Dutton, Leonard Jackson, Robert Judd, Christopher Loomis, Aleta Mitchell and Joe Senaca. Nominated for a Tony Award, Ma Rainey's won the 1984 New York Drama Critics Circle Award.