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Syracuse Stage announces cast of 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom,' commits to complete August Wilson's 10-play chronic

July 29, 2008

Patrick Farrell

Patrick Farrell

"August is unquestionably a hero of contemporary American theatre," says Bond. "It gives me great pleasure to begin directing at Syracuse Stage with the play that launched Wilson's outstanding career, and in the upcoming years I will make it part of our mission to finish producing the full 10-play cycle."

Syracuse Stage has previously produced four plays in Wilson's cycle: "Fences" (1991), "The Piano Lesson" (1996), "Jitney" (2002) and "Gem of the Ocean" (2007). After "Ma Rainey," the remaining plays are "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," "Seven Guitars," "Two Trains Running," "King Hedley" and "Radio Golf."

The New York Times called Wilson "one of the most important voices in the American theatre." Of his own legacy, Wilson said, "Before I am anything, a man or a playwright, I am an African American. The tributary streams of culture, history and experience have provided me with the materials out of which I make my art."

For the production of "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," the title role will be played by esteemed actress Ebony Jo-Ann, who understudied the role for Broadway productions and most recently performed as Ma Rainey at The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Jo-Ann understudied for Phylicia Rashad in the Broadway production of Wilson's "Gem of the Ocean" and understudied the title role of "Ma Rainey" for Broadway productions in 1984 (Theresa Merritt) and 2003 (Whoopi Goldberg). She had a triumphant run with her band, The Blackgold Ensemble, at Harlem's Lenox Lounge and is a six-time Vivian Robinson AUDELCO Award winner.

Thomas Jefferson Byrd, Tony-nominated for his portrayal of Toledo in the 2003 Broadway production, will reprise the role at Syracuse Stage. His film credits include "Lackawanna Blues" (HBO Films) and Spike Lee's "Bamboozled," "He Got Game," "Get on the Bus" and "Clockers." He has starred in numerous regional stage productions, including the San Diego Repertory Theatre's award-winning production of "Spunk," "Home," "Two Trains Running," "The Piano Lesson" and "Ma Rainey" at the Alliance Theatre.

Warner Miller, an up-and-coming actor who has appeared in the films "American Gangster" and "Everyday People," will portray Levee.

Other cast members include Timothy Davis-Reed (The Policeman), a professor in the Department of Drama in Syracuse University's College of Visual and Performing Arts and TV veteran known for his roles as Chris on "Sports Night" and Mark O'Donnell on "The West Wing"; Doug Eskew (Slow Drag), who appeared on Broadway in "Five Guys Named Moe" and "Truly Blessed"; Kenny Morris (Irvin), who last appeared at Syracuse Stage as Meyer/Mikhl in "The Dybbuk" during the 2001-02 season and has understudied for the role of Thenardier in "Les Miserables" on Broadway; Cortez Nance (Cutler), who appeared as Eli in "Gem of the Ocean" and Gabriel in "Fences" at Pittsburgh Public Theatre Company, as Doub in "Jitney" at Second Stage Theatre and as Red Carter in "Seven Guitars" at Alliance Theatre Company; and John Ottavino (Sturdyvant), who has appeared as The Messenger in "A Doll's House" on Broadway and in a series of productions at Coconut Grove Playhouse that were both written and directed by Edward Albee.

Also joining the cast are two SU Drama students: senior James F. Miller (Sylvester) and junior Danielle Lenee' (Dussie Mae).

"Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," inspired by real-life "Mother of the Blues" Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, opened on Broadway in 1984 to rave reviews, marking Wilson's entry into his monumental 10-play chronicle. In 2003, a successful revival was staged with Whoopi Goldberg in the title role.

The story centers on a young horn player with a pocket full of songs and a head full of dreams who longs to place his name among the giants of the blues, legends the likes of Ma Rainey, for whom he is a session sideman. In a single day of making music, making jokes and making deals, the horn player succumbs to the harsh realities of unjustly thwarted aspirations and the self-destructive consequences of misdirected anger and violence.

Tickets for "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" can be purchased at the Syracuse Stage Box Office, 820 E. Genesee St., by calling (315) 443-3275 or online at

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