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The year is 1927, the scene a small, dilapidated recording studio in Chicago. Gertrude (Ma) Rainey and her band are playing. The trombonist looks up and sings the blues:

“If I had my way, I would tear this old building down.”

This really happened. However, playwright August Wilson has invented his own details and supporting players. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” playing at the Lyceum Theatre at Horton Plaza through Feb. 15, is about legendary blues singer Ma Rainey and the black American’s search for identity. The Broadway show won the New York Critics Award as the best new play of the 1984-85 theater season.

Floyd Gaffney, who directs one play a year for San Diego’s Southeast Community Theatre, chose to do “Ma Rainey” because the play deals with the black man’s role in society, which he said is rarely done in theater.


Throughout the play, trumpet player LeVee (Damon Bryant) challenges Rainey (Charlette Seward). He attacks the blues, calling it “jug band” music, and dreams of forming his own jazz band to cash in on the latest dance craze. Although their battle depicts the difference in two generations of black music, it more profoundly presents LeVee’s search to find himself, Gaffney said.

A drama professor and chairman of the Contemporary Black Arts Program at UC San Diego, Gaffney wants to educate whites on the blacks’ struggle to cope with racism.

“This play talks about problems blacks, especially black entertainers, had to deal with in those days,” Gaffney said. “Although there was a lot of interest in black musicians back then, they still had to contend with prejudice.”

In “Ma Rainey,” Ma knows the limits of her success. Although she has reached stardom, she can’t hail a cab in the white section of the city. She knows that her position will last only as long as her product sells.

“The play discusses black philosophies,” Gaffney said. “For this reason I wanted to move it to a downtown theater to reach a bigger audience.”

Gaffney’s cast will fake playing the instruments, but Sewart will sing original material by Rainey.


“It’s really hard to find good musicians that can actually act as well,” Gaffney said.

Sewart was a professional singer before moving to San Diego and starting her theater career. At the 1978 American Music Awards in Boston, when she was with the disco group Foxy, they received a gold record for the single “Get Off.”

She was awarded the 1984 and 1985 San Diego Associated Community Theater Awards for “Purlie” and “Ain’t Misbehavin’.”

“Since I was 3 years old, my grandmother has called me Ma Rainey,” Sewart said. “It is going to be hard to adopt Ma’s role. She’s such a witch and I’m so easygoing.

“Being a black singer myself, I can relate to Ma’s problems with her manager and the music industry. I’ve had to deal with many of the things that happen in the play.

“I think it’s important that people know black music didn’t start with Whitney Houston. I would like this to be one of the best shows in San Diego, and I hope the whole community comes.”

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” will run at 8 p.m. through Sunday and Feb. 12-15. Tickets are on sale at the San Diego Repertory Theatre box office at Horton Plaza.