Phylicia Rashad Talks ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ at The Mark Taper Forum

Author: Pat Prescott

August Wilson’s hard-hitting “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is now running through October 16th at the Mark Taper Forum. Phylicia Rashad directs this groundbreaking play which depicts racism and exploitation in the music industry in a production inspired by the real-life Gertrude “Ma” Rainey. Phylicia called in to the Wave to talk about the play, her work as a director and how her Mother has inspired her.

This is not Phylicia’s first time directing. She was asked by the playwright’s wife to direct some of his works. Being an actor herself has helped Phylicia’s directing and vice versa. She is thrilled to be working with some amazing actors for this project, including Lillias White, Keith David and Glynn Turman. She says what she loves most is that they never say no. They are willing to explore every aspect of the characters they play and they work together to find ways to realize the vision.

This is not a biographical piece about Ma Rainey. Like all of the plays in August Wilson’s ten play cycle, this one also focuses on the people; the 20th century descendants of Africans who were captured and brought to America in bondage. It’s set in 1927 in Chicago, where Ma Rainey has come for a recording session. Most of the action takes place in the studio with the band members. The focus of the play is how the music of this period was changing and the world was being changed by it.

I asked Phylicia why she is so drawn to August Wilson’s work. She told me that her mother, Vivian Ayers, is a poet. She says that because she grew up with a writer, she understands the writer’s process and appreciates what Wilson was able to accomplish. Every time Phylicia reads a text, especially a poetic text, she falls in love with the work. I met her Mom one evening at a local restaurant having dinner with her son-in-law, Norm Nixon. She is an elegant and classy woman, whom both Phylicia and her sister Debbie Allen are proud of. Their mother always said that the sisters would remain close because they have similar interests and that prediction has proven to be true. Phylicia also gives credit to the people of the community they grew up in who cared about them when they were growing up and who had big expectations of them.

Phylicia wants us all to see the play because she says theater is such an expression of life. It holds a mirror in which you can see your own humanity reflected. She wants people to see themselves in it.

August Wilson’s “ Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”
Now through October 16, 2016
The Mark Taper Forum
135 N. Grand Avenue
LA 90012
For information call 213-628-2772 or visit

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