There's a battle brewing over Ma Rainey's Black Bottom.
Two of the play's 1984 producers — Robert Cole and Frederick M. Zollo — claim that their original contract allows them certain rights to the show, should playwright August Wilson stage a revival himself. The New York Times reports, however, that Wilson contends he is not a producer; the production is being produced by Sageworks (the "partnership dedicated to supporting the works of August Wilson") and Benjamin Mordecai.
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, developed at the Yale Repertory Theatre, opened at Broadway's Cort Theatre in Oct. 1984, playing 276 performances before closing in June 1985. It was produced by Cole, Zollo and the late Ivan Bloch. About the upcoming production, which casts Whoopi Goldberg in the title role, Cole told the Times: "We have no desire or intention to stop this. But we have no desire or intention to let ourselves be stripped of this right which we have earned."
August Wilson's lawyer, John Breglio, told the New York daily, "As far as August is concerned, he has complied with all of his obligations." Breglio said that Cole and Zollo had been given the chance to take over as producers but rejected the offer. "That's the only right they have," Breglio said. "We've done everything we have to do."
In a letter to Cole and Zollo's lawyer, Breglio also disputed the notion that Wilson is producing the revival. He said this was not the case — the producer is Sageworks, owned by David Bedford Films Inc., and Benjamin Mordecai Productions Inc. A spokesman for Mordecai said, "As far as my production is concerned, we have done nothing improper. We understand that Mr. Wilson has complied with all of his obligations to the original producers of the 1984 production." Cole confirmed the Times account to Playbill On-Line Nov. 14. When asked to clarify the contents of the original contract, the producer declined, adding, "I just don't think it's appropriate [to discuss the matter], and I don't think it's constructive either." A spokesperson for Mordecai had no additional information, but confirmed that the upcoming Broadway "production is on schedule."
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. Previews for the revival are scheduled to begin Jan. 17, 2003 at the Royale Theatre, with an opening on Feb. 6. The 23-week engagement will play through June 29.
Goldberg will star opposite Charles S. Dutton, who will repeat the role he created in the show's original run, trumpet player Levee. Marion McClinton will direct.