By Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor Published Mar 10, 2011 at 9:01 AM

In the fall of 1984, an unknown Pittsburgh playwright got his first national exposure and the American theater received its initial glimpse of what became a monumental achievement. August Wilson's "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" opened on Broadway.

The production had a modest run of 276 performances, and the play won critical acclaim, including a Tony Award nomination. Most importantly, it seriously launched the self-educated Wilson, a high school dropout, on his epic mission to write a play representing the African-American experience in each decade of the 20th century. Two Pulitzer Prizes and a towering body of work followed before the writer died in 2005, shortly after finishing his 10-work cycle.

Wilson left us a dazzling treasure of substance and style unlike anything else in theater, and it would be interesting to go back to "Ma Rainey" and see it from the perspective of his completed canon. The Milwaukee Rep is allowing us to do that with a stunning production of the play that opened in the Quadracci Powerhouse Theater last weekend. It is a joint project with the Actors Theatre of Louisville, which mounted the show first.

Ma Rainey was an early blues singer from the 1920s who is a member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Wilson's drama is set in a Chicago studio before, during and after a 1927 recording session that actually occurred. The action and characters other than Rainey are fictitious.

We are presented with a black singer and her four African-American sidemen, all of whom have reached respectable levels of accomplishment. They earn their livings as musicians rather than in the back breaking and often humiliating jobs to which black people were relegated.

But they are trapped in a racist pathology that restricts and confines them at every turn. Caught in a box with ambitions thwarted and rights denied, the musicians' frustrations explode into destructive behaviors.

Rainey is an imperious diva, making demands and assuming airs inside the studio, the only place she can command respect. Outside she is just another black woman subject to a system stacked against her.

Three of the studio musicians are veteran players who have learned to subjugate their dreams and emotions to get along in an unjust world. The fourth, a young and enterprising trumpeter called Levee, is the play's linchpin.

Cocky and brash, he has yet to get his crushing smackdown from the system until the drama's final minutes. The result is devastating.

Wilson didn't use his plays to rant and rail. The two white characters in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," her manager and the recording studio boss, display the prevailing patronizing attitude toward blacks, but they are not bad people. They too are caught up in a society structured around bias and inequality.

"Ma Rainey's" action swings back and forth between the sound studio itself and an adjacent warm-up space that is sort of a locker room for the sidemen. Most of the first act and crucial moments of the second are spent in the latter as the players joke, razz, bicker and reminisce with each other.

This is where the playwright establishes the cultural, historical and stylistic texture of the piece. The characters and their banter are salty and funny. Their interplay is hugely entertaining.

But as we listen closer, we also perceive the deep damage that has been done by racism and segregation. Beneath the surface, life is not funny.

That becomes horrifically obvious when the irrepressible Levee erupts into a strangled wail of a tale about his family. Originally unlikable because of his youthful arrogance, he becomes a sympathetic figure, and that sets us up for the drama's kick-in-the-stomach resolution.

Wilson's exceptional gift for writing dialog is on glittering display here, as everyday chatter among the characters often soars to lyrical heights. Looking in retrospect at the dramatist's career and all of its achievements, "Ma Rainey," Wilson's breakout work, stands tall among his best.

This production's cast, under Ron O.J. Parson's direction, is superlative. An athletic Anthony Fleming III imbues Levee with the relentless restless energy and charm of a hustler, but the actor also possesses an emotional depth necessary for the play to work.

Ma Rainey is portrayed by Greta Oglesby, a marvelously versatile actress who recently spent 10 months at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival playing Hamlet's ma, Gertrude. She can definitely sing the blues as well as convincingly be a prickly and volatile prima donna.

Ernest Perry, Jr., A.C. Smith and Alfred H. Wilson are quite wonderful as the three older musicians in Rainey's studio band. Nuance and timing mark their performances.

"Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" defines the importance of art. It helps us better understand our world.

Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor

Damien has been around so long, he was at Summerfest the night George Carlin was arrested for speaking the seven dirty words you can't say on TV. He was also at the Uptown Theatre the night Bruce Springsteen's first Milwaukee concert was interrupted for three hours by a bomb scare. Damien was reviewing the concert for the Milwaukee Journal. He wrote for the Journal and Journal Sentinel for 37 years, the last 29 as theater critic.

During those years, Damien served two terms on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, a term on the board of the association's foundation, and he studied the Latinization of American culture in a University of Southern California fellowship program. Damien also hosted his own arts radio program, "Milwaukee Presents with Damien Jaques," on WHAD for eight years.

Travel, books and, not surprisingly, theater top the list of Damien's interests. A news junkie, he is particularly plugged into politics and international affairs, but he also closely follows the Brewers, Packers and Marquette baskeball. Damien lives downtown, within easy walking distance of most of the theaters he attends.