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Release: June 4, 1999

Iowa Summer Rep's August Wilson festival opens with 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom'

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Iowa Summer Rep '99, "Out of the Blues: an August Wilson Festival," will open with the musical drama "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," June 22 through July 3 in the David Thayer Theatre of the University of Iowa Theatre Building.

Performances will be at 8 p.m. June 22-26; at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Sunday, June 27; and at 8 p.m. June 29 through July 3.

"Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," directed by Iowa Summer Rep veteran Mary Beth Easley, is set in a 1927 recording studio, where the interactions of an African-American blues singer and her band with each other -- and with her white manager and the white owner of the studio -- reveal much about the origin and meaning of the blues in black America.

"The blues is the bedrock of everything I do," Wilson has explained. "It's the best literature we have. All the ideas and attitudes of my characters come straight out of the blues. It's a cultural response of Africans to the world they find themselves living in."

"Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," based on the life of the "Mother of the Blues," was a breakthrough play for Wilson. Written in 1981, "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" gained Wilson admission to the O'Neill Theatre Center in 1982, and became his first major production, with acclaimed Broadway and touring productions beginning in 1984.

Although the play is not a musical, in the traditional sense, it includes performances of "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" by Ma Rainey; Louis Armstrong's "Hear Me Talkin' to You"; and "Doctor Jazz" by Joseph Oliver and Walter Melrose. Historical recordings of Ma Rainey are also featured in this production.

Calling the play "funny, salty, carnal and lyrical," Frank Rich of the New York Times wrote, "it floats on the same authentic artistry as the blues music it celebrates." The Broadway production's director, Lloyd Richards, wrote, "What a playwright needs is wit and wisdom and great respect for life. These qualities cannot be taught. August Wilson has them."

The success of "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" launched Wilson into one of the most successful careers in contemporary American theater -- including two Pulitzer Prizes and a Tony Award. He has been dubbed the "bard of Black America" for poetic plays that probe the roots and manifestations of the African-American experience.

"We have here some of the finest dramatic writing of this century, and it's a pleasure and a privilege to be working on it," says Eric Forsythe, the UI department of theatre arts faculty member who is the artistic director of Iowa Summer Rep. "Each play chronicles life in a different decade of the century, and each has its share of humor, music, human resilience and faith. Wilson is a powerhouse."

The Iowa Summer Rep production of "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" features scenic design by Alison Ford, costume design by Kaoime Malloy, lighting design by Bryon Winn, musical direction/sound design by Mark Bruckner, choreography/movement by Cecil Slaughter and fight choreography by Michael T. Kachingwe.

For many seasons Iowa Summer Rep has pursued a unique focus in American summer theater -- making each season a festival of plays by a single contemporary playwright. But the 1999 season also offers something new: For the first time Iowa Summer Rep has become an Actor's Equity Company, elevating its status as a professional theater company.

Consistent with a popular Iowa Summer Rep tradition, theatergoers may dine beginning at 6 p.m. on the Theatre Building plaza before each evening performance, on food prepared by the Iowa Memorial Union food service to match the theme of the summer.

This season, at Aunt Mabie's Backporch Diner, the menu will feature versions of traditional African-American fare, including black-eyed peas, succotash, catfish, greens and peach cobbler. Reservations are recommended by calling 319-335-3105. No credit cards are accepted for dinner items.

Tickets to "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" are $16 ($12 for senior citizens, and $8 for UI students and children). Tickets are available in advance from the Hancher Auditorium box office. Any remaining tickets for each performance will be available at the Theatre Building box office one hour before curtain time.

Tickets are also available at a substantial discount as part of an Iowa Summer Rep season subscription. Other Wilson plays in the festival are the Pultizer Prize-winning "Fences" and "Joe Turner's Come and Gone." Group rates are also available.

An Iowa Summer Rep brochure, with complete information about productions and performance dates, is available from the Hancher box office or from the UI Department of Theatre Arts, 319-335-2700.

Hancher summer box office hours are 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. weekdays. From the local calling area or outside Iowa, dial (319) 335-1160. Long distance within Iowa and western Illinois is toll-free, 1-800-HANCHER. Fax to (319) 353-2284. Orders may be charged to VISA, MasterCard or American Express. UI students may charge their purchases to their university bills, and UI faculty and staff may select the option of payroll deduction.

People with special needs for access, seating and auxiliary services should dial (319) 335-1158. This number will be answered by box office personnel prepared to offer assistance with handicapped parking, wheelchair access and seating and other services. The line is equipped with TDD for people with hearing impairment who use that technology.

"Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" contains material of an adult nature. Potential audience members who are concerned about whether it is appropriate for them should contact the theater department for additional information.