Pacific Palisades Native Greg Bryan Acts in ‘Ma Rainey’

By Laurel Busby
Staff Writer

Actor Greg Bryan has found a niche this year playing police officers.

“It seems to be my year of playing cops, so I’m getting used to it,” said Bryan, who took on the role of a policeman in both the Emmy-winning television miniseries American Crime Story: The People Vs. O.J. Simpson and the current production of August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, directed by Phylicia Rashad, which plays at the Mark Taper Forum through Oct. 16.

Both shows explore themes plucked from the news, including discrimination by police officers and overall society toward African-Americans. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, written in 1982 by the Pulitzer Prize winner, explores a 1920s recording session of the real-life “mother of the blues” as part of his “Century” cycle of ten plays addressing the African American experience. Bryan, who grew up in Pacific Palisades, has found the part exhilarating.

Left to right: Nija Okoro, Lillias White, Lamar Richardson, Ed Swidey and Greg Bryan in August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, directed by Phylicia Rashad. Photo: Craig Schwartz

Left to right: Nija Okoro, Lillias White, Lamar Richardson, Ed Swidey and Greg Bryan in August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, directed by Phylicia Rashad. Photo: Craig Schwartz

“This has been one of my top experiences ever on stage,” said Bryan, a Pitzer College graduate, who has previously worked on both Geffen Playhouse and Taper productions as well as in television roles for Castle and Bones. Although his current part involves about 10 minutes of stage time during Ma Rainey’s grand entrance, “no one ever made me feel like it’s a small part. It’s a bunch of friends hanging out and enjoying each other’s company—exceptionally talented actors that I got to watch on a daily basis.”

The ensemble cast of ten explores the many manifestations of bigotry through the vehicle of a 2-1/2-hour recording session with white producers and African-American musicians.

Although Ma Rainey (played as a blast of song and strength by Lillias White) is the reason that all the characters are brought together, the show focuses more on the repartee of her band, whose life experiences, which range from sad to comedic to horrific, are gradually revealed to expose how their pasts explosively affect their personalities, relationships and actions.

Bryan treasured both Phylicia Rashad’s direction and the opportunity to observe skilled and seasoned actors, including Glynn Turman, who starred in the original Broadway production of A Raisin in the Sun and who plays the soulful, self-educated philosopher Toledo.

“I knew of him, but watching him work was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had,” Bryan said. “He would try new things every single rehearsal. It was exciting to watch.”

And Rashad, best known for her work on The Cosby Show, “just has this regal nature about her . . . The regalness is because her heart is so big, and she is so kind and so generous,” Bryan said. “She respects everyone she’s working with. She brings out the best in all of us in rehearsals.”

Bryan, a 1990 Crossroads graduate who later attended the London Academy of
Music and Dramatic Art, spent four weeks in rehearsals for the show. The Hollywood
resident, whose mother is Palisades News copy editor Nancy Bryan, earned one of
two roles cast via audition, while the other actors, including three who had to learn to
play an instrument (trumpet, piano or upright bass) for their parts, were all hired because they were well known to the director.

Throughout the production, Bryan found his role intriguing, because the part is not simply a “blanket evil white cop,” he said. “August Wilson has an affection for all of his characters, whether they’re good or bad . . . [The officer] is trying to do his job without causing too much trouble, but is also kind of amazed by this powerhouse of an African American woman who stands up to the man.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is playing through Oct. 16 at Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum at the Los Angeles Music Center. For tickets and Information, please visit CenterTheatreGroup.org.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *