CSC’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” Hits the Perfect Note Depicting the Black Experience During the Roaring ’20s

 Review by Jenifer Moore

Torie Wiggins as Ma Rainey with the cast of August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” directed by Candice Handy playing at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company Jan. 21 – Feb. 12, 2022. Photo by Mikki Schaffner.

The Blues and the blues take center stage at the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company with its adaptation of August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” starring Tori Wiggins as Ma Rainey. If If you are a fan of Wilson’s American Century Cycle, which features this and nine other plays about the African American experience during the 20th century, then you are in for a treat. The talented CSC cast hits the perfect note while addressing race relations, the exploitation of black musicians, faith, and more while preparing to record a new album as Ma Rainey and a group of musicians from the South in a Chicago studio. 

Tensions often flare during a number of spirited conversations between the quartet of musicians between rehearsal and the recording session. The various viewpoints on the impact of being Black in America and the hope to achieve the American Dream against the oppressive majority is a sticking point with Levee (Crystian Wiltshire) and the rest of the crew, Cutler (Ken Early) and Toledo (“ranney”) in particular.  

Wiltshire and “ranney” shine in their respective roles where the older gentleman tries without fail to impart wisdom onto the younger gentleman who is resistant to receive due to his own life experiences. You can feel the weight of the world on the shoulders of the actors who lean on their experiences as Black men in today’s world to convey many of the same feelings that were present in the 1920s. 

These feelings are not gender-specific as Ma Rainey has issues of her own. Wiggins is larger than life in her portrayal of the well-known blues singer who has a clear understanding of what life as a black musician is like. She is headstrong and firm in her convictions as Ma Rainey to get what she wants before the record executives get theirs and discard her. Last but certainly not least, Wiggins’ strong alto voice fills the Otto M. Budig Theater in such a magnificent way during the musical performances leaving the audience wanting more. Jim Hopkins and Jeremy Dubin as Sturdyvant and Irvin, respectively offer some levity to the heavy play material in their roles as the record executives.  

I loved the simplicity of the set design by Tony Hardin as it allows the audience to focus on the performance of the cast. Also, Daryl Harris’ work with the costume design allowed the look of the 1920s to shine against the scenery. The double-breasted suits, wingtips, and oxfords on the men and the flowing dresses and low kitten heels on the women brought about some nostalgia of the roaring twenties. 

The Cincinnati Shakespeare Company’s rendition of August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” under the excellent direction of Candice Handy stays true to the classic play as composed in the early 1980s. It’s warm, thought-provoking, and true to the form of what it means to be Black in America. The nearly two-and-a-half-hour show will remind you why August Wilson was one of America’s most brilliant playwrights. 

If you are interested in a deeper dive into the work of August Wilson, CSC will host Dr. Sandra G. Shannon, the leading authority on August Wilson, for a lecture on the play and its cultural impact. The event will be held at the Otto M. Budig Theatre Sunday, February 6 at 7 P.M. Click here for tickets. 

August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” runs until Feb. 12 at the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company.

Tickets and more info are available at or by calling the Box Office at (513) 381-2273.

Jenifer Moore is a Corporate Affairs Manager for Kroger, former Public Affairs Specialist for AAA, and Walnut Hills grad. Her passions include communications, PR, supporting candidates, and “I Love Lucy.”