90% #OutOf100 – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at The National Theatre

Is it necessary to explain that the Blues is a music born out of the suffering of black folks from the deep south of north America by way of Africa?  Pain, regret, loss, anger, frustration, religion, racism, sex, survival… that’s the Blues and it’s also what’s packed into August Wilson’s classic play. Through mostly the perspective of Ma Rainey’s supporting band we are made to understand why black folk sang… had to sang the blues.

Although the title, you don’t get to see Ma Rainey’s actual black bottom. This is not a birth to death account of her life either…  ‘Black Bottom’ is a reference to a dance made popular by African Americans at the time, but you could however interpret ‘Black Bottom’ to represent the racial state of America during Rainey’s musical reign and it’s this Black Bottom that you get to see a whole lot of in this production. Directed by Dominic Cooke, like the original play, the story focuses on a day at a recording studio in Chicago 1927. The studio manager and Rainey’s agent are ready; the band is in position and rehearsing. But Ma Rainey also known as ‘Mother of The Blues’ is nowhere in sight. Rainey’s absence causes tensions to flare and festering unsaids to be spewed.

With the NT’s Lyttelton Theatre stage designed as a vast recording studio we first see Ma Rainey’s white agent, Irvin (Finbar Lynch) and white studio manager, Sturdyvant (Stuart McQuarrie) bickering about Ma Rainey’s lateness, Ma Rainey’s ‘diva’ behaviour and the fact that they are wholly dependent financially on Ma Rainey to arrive and cut them some new records. Then with a clever, albeit slightly disjointed set adjustment we are introduced to Ma Rainey’s all male black band members, ‘Toledo’ – Lucian Msamati (A Wolf in Snakeskin Shoes, Game of Thrones)‘Cutler’ – Clint Dyer (The Royale, SUS), ‘Slow Drag’ – Giles Terera (Muse of Fire) and ‘Levee’ – O-T Fagbenle (The Interceptor) downstairs in the rehearsal basement.

© Johan Persson. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom with Sharon D Clarke as Ma Rainey

It’s in this basement where the heart of the tale resides. Whilst we the audience are made to wait for Ma Rainey as everyone at the studio is waiting for her, we have no option but to be drawn into the conversations between the band members. What starts off as banter and good natured male ribbing soon dissolves into bruised egos and deep rooted hurt. Wilson has a track record of capturing the political mood of the period he wrote for and in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom with the focus on music being the metaphor for life, black musicians are the ‘leftovers’ of the white controlled Music Business Banquet…

Wilson gives this poetic philosophy regarding black people’s position in the banquet of life to Msamati’s Toldeo who presides over the rest of the band as the book smart piano player who wishes his bandmates would expand their ‘niggah’ minds to see the world for what it truly is. His thought provoking conversations with ‘us’ strike an effective chord. As all barbershop, pool hall, locker room settings, it’s in the rehearsal room the male band members shake off the pressures of having to live a life of subservience to the white man and having their futures dictated at that moment by their band Leader Ma Rainey and white employers Sturdyvant and Irvin. With Dyer’s Cutler, whose camaraderie reminds you of your favourite uncle – just don’t piss him off, and Terera’s Slow Drag providing the neutrality of the group it’s Fagbenle’s egotistical bastard, Levee who takes up the mantle of the villain. We’ve met this man before. Bitter from a destroyed past; finds joy in flaunting what little power he has be it with his looks or talent over his so called friends from who he draws strength in his perception that they are worse off than him. In this case Levee is naively brandishing his side deal with Sturdyvant over his bandmates.

If we pull back from the story unfolding before us, those of us who are fans of Sharon D Clarke could potentially be a little underwhelmed during the first act. If you are expecting Ms Clarke, full blown vocals and lots of musical entertainment, this isn’t the play. The first act sits heavily on the shoulders of the four band members. Each of them have a tale to tell about white oppression which they use to pull each other up and beat each other down. Fighting to be king of the rehearsal room. There was a point where I was wondering how the repetitive use of the word ‘niggah’ and constant reference to ‘white crackers who don’t know how to have fun, so instead get joy from holding black people back’ was being interpreted by the predominantly white audience. Whilst we are made to wait for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom to appear, we are being forced to understand why the hell these men are so angry at the world and each other.

(l-r) Clint Dyer as Cutler; O-T Fagbenle as Levee, and Giles Terera as Slow Drag
© Johan Persson

She finally appears in a bluster of noise and drama. After a run in with the police Ma Rainey is unapologetic that her Black Bottom is late. She is unapologetic that her cute sassy girlfriend Dussie Mae (Tamara Lawrence) is where most of her attention lays and she is unapologetic that the introduction of her stuttering nephew Sylvester endearingly played by Tunji Lucas (Gone Too Far) will upset the group’s dynamics and agendas. She just doesn’t care. Clarke’s Ma Rainey is expectedly well executed and in her comfort zone she is a pleasure to watch. Fans of Ms Clarke will however, wish you got to hear more of her voice, if only for indulgence rather than necessity. Lawrence’s Dussie Mae showcases a different and often overlooked dynamic. The opportunist ‘gold digger’ whose sexuality is as fluid as the person in the limelight’s success. Is it different being the plaything of a female superstar? Lawrence gives a solid performance as a woman who knows what she wants. Willing to be used as long as she gets to use.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom truly is a representation of the themes which make up the Blues, with Levee challenging the absent white God in his life as he recants a powerfully emotional childhood memory filled with bitterness and regret at his inability to save family members from the fate of weapon wielding white men. Cutler holding on desperately to his faith, violently reacting to Levee’s brazen blasphemy, only moments after his own tale of of the dancing preacher, a black man of the cloth who wasn’t protected by God from being treated just like any other ‘nigger’ at the hands of weapon wielding white men. 

Anger spews from Toledo’s bitter disappointment at the state of his African brethren lost in America usually again at the hands of weapon wielding white men. Whilst Slow Drag provides the sexual bass soundtrack to the tales of his bandmates’ woes. Ma Rainey herself is the blues personified – she understands and abuses her power turning up late, commanding, no, controlling the movements of her love interest. Forcing everyone to accept her way is the only way. Her anger at how the world treats a black woman even if she is a superstar exudes through her singing her behaviour and her refusal to take direction. She’s a feminist’s dream. She also knows her ‘power’ is a myth and the reality that no matter how much she kicks off… the white men control her as much they do everything else and for that, everyone will suffer her.

Although Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a thoroughly enjoyable play. With every cast member excelling in their roles. I could find no fault nor flaw. The theme of evil white people vs. downtrodden smiling, singing, yassa massa boss-ing through the pain black folk is strenuous. The relevance is, that not much has changed. The problem is, we’re seemingly stuck in the rut. New stories and new black narratives are desperately needed.

But, the importance of this play is not to be overlooked. Wilson’s words force everyone to consider how we all learn to manage in the face of adversity oftentimes, as displayed in the dramatic and unexpected ending, to our detriment. It’s unfortunate Wilson’s play still resonates today. It is a timely production and testament to The National’s commitment to diversity on stage.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a must see.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom runs at The National Theatre until May 18th 2016.

Find out more and book tickets here.



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