by Jessica Harris; featured photo by Cara Walton Photography
Featured photo: Full cast. Top row: (l-r) Ivan Orr as Toledo, Jude Hansen as Irvin, Leslie Scott-Jones as Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Keaira Reese as Dussie Mae, Saturn Edwards as Sylvester Brown, Nick Hagy as Sturdyvant, Stephen Haske as Policeman; Bottom row: (l-r) Jordan Sykes as Cutler, Greg Thompson as Levee, Ike Anderson as Slow Drag.
To reserve your ticket to “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” visit the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center website. Updated shows run June 15- 17 and June 29- July 2, 2023 | Thursday-Saturday, shows are at 7:30pm; Sundays at 2pm. General Admission: $20. All tickets will be at will call. To get in touch with director Ti Ames, email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It goes without saying that the dynamic Ti Ames is a familiar face around Charlottesville.
Maybe that’s because they’ve been embedded in the community for over 20 years. Or maybe because they’re an accomplished director and performer, singing and acting on stages all over the region. Or perhaps it’s because of their role as Education Director at Live Arts.
Whatever the reason, it’s an indisputable fact that Ti is a creative artist, visionary, and educator whose work has left an indelible impact on our community. And their latest work directing “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” at the Charlottesville Players Guild (CPG) is certainly no exception.
Ti was born in Baltimore, but moved to Charlottesville at a young age when their mom started a church in the area. The creative arts have always been a part of their life and guiding their journey. “I was that kid who ran to my imagination all the time because it was safe and fun,” Ti smiles.
They first entered the Charlottesville arts scene at age 8 when they took part in an animation camp at Light House Studio. The next summer, they participated in camps at Live Arts, and did so until age 17. “I did everything I could to be an actor,” Ti shared. They poured themselves into theatre, participating in local shows and engaging in as many opportunities as they could – both locally and even nationally.
However, it wasn’t until they began studying at Oberlin College that they truly discovered the power of Blackness in theatre. “It took taking classes linked in both theatre and Africana studies to realize, ‘Hey, there’s more to theatre than just white plays and white theatre,’” Ti shared. And this entry into Black theatre practice has been transformational for them, to say the least.
After exploring the performance route for a bit, Ti found that acting wasn’t their calling. “I didn’t want to hide anymore…I wanted to be,” Ti reflected. This desire to be pulled them towards directing. And similar to their younger self whose imagination ran wild with creativity and sought escape, part of Ti’s love of directing came from their love of building worlds. They shared, “I realized that I was building worlds in my head, and I wanted to put them out in the world.”
Their directorial mission is to foster safe space for actors to explore and create through ritual, and to tap into folks’ inner child. Ti works to help actors advocate for themselves, support each other, and foster community. “I think Black people, we naturally do that wherever we go. But it’s nice to be able to help teach people how to do that,” they smiled.
Most recently, Ti put those skills into practice, directing August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” at CPG. The play is centered on four Black, male band members, and titular character Ma Rainey as they perform in a white recording studio in Chicago, 1927. They are all trying to make a living, while the white record label staff seeks to increase their profits on the backs of these Black performers.
“Ma Rainey is the story of survival of this band who was trying their hardest to make money, but also emotionally, mentally, and spiritually sustain themselves. And how is that even possible when there’s a white man breathing over your shoulder every five seconds?” Ti asked.
In CPG’s production, Ti has drawn a parallel between 1927 and 2023. “We’re talking about how Black people, whether right when enslavement began or now, have been performing for white people and performing a certain level of Blackness for their own safety, for their own protection, for their well-being generally.” And, in line with August Wilson’s other plays, this production interrogates that plight, and seeks to peel back the characters’ multilayered Black experience.
Part of what makes this CPG production so powerful is an exciting spin Ti’s added. “What you’re expecting to hear is 1920s blues and jazz feel right? What you’re going to get is jazz and blues with a neo soul spin with an early 2000’s R&B spin. We are illustrating that not much has changed. Whether you are a blues singer in the 1920s or a hip hop mogul of 2023, who is still signing your checks?” Ti commented.
Another aspect of this show that makes it feel communal is the fact that the audience is quite literally thrust into these intimate conversations with the characters. During the show’s opening speech, Ti invites audiences to engage in call and response – to share with the cast their reactions, laughs, and gasps throughout the show in a life-giving way. This practice breaks down barriers between the fictional world of “Ma Rainey” and the audience’s current reality, and invites us to connect across this divide.
Additionally, this production has also brought together various artists and creatives, including actors from Charlottesville and three actors from Lynchburg. [To see the whole cast and crew, visit their virtual playbill here.] Each of the performers has met the challenge of performing Wilson – which is to say, a tremendous lift. “Not only are people memorizing three, four-page monologues, they’re also memorizing lyrics and songs,” Ti said. “It’s ritual and performance and toeing that line.”
Yet, this show is not simply about tackling generational traumas and the plight of the music industry. The authentic joy and exuberance that the cast brings to the heavy material is tremendous. The show is simply electric, fast-paced, and real. During the show, audiences witness these captivating characters as they share their memories, traumas, passions, and loves – and remain present with them every step of the way.
This talented ensemble of performers brings a connection and energy that is palpable. And it’s even more special that this show is performed at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, a space filled with such rich history and meaning for Black Charlottesville. “I walk into the theatre every day and remind myself I’m a part of a legacy of CPG that’s been here for nearly 100 years,” Ti remarked. “So to be able to continue in that legacy means a lot.”
As the audience leaves the theatre, Ti wants them singing. “Not just singing, but SANGING,” Ti laughs. “I want them singing their feelings. I want them singing about how they experienced the show.” They hope that they continue discussing its themes, and that they feel “transported and yet very much grounded in reality,” and realize that “that this [story] could happen at any time with anybody.”
As for what’s on Ti’s horizon, they’re planning to pursue graduate studies in directing. They just premiered selections from their original musical Blue Ridge Mama as part of Live Arts’ WaterWorks Festival, and it will be featured production for the 2024 WaterWorks. In the near future, they’ll also be directing Fireflies at Live Arts, and another show at CPG next year.
Do yourself a favor and catch “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” before it leaves CPG on June 25. The cast’s talented and grounded performances, and Ti’s keen and powerful directing make this an unforgettable show. Judging by this performance, their extensive body of work, and their talent, passion, and care – there’s no telling what bright future is in store for Ti Ames.