The struggle for self-determination against overwhelming odds is powerfully explored in Dominic Cooke's excellent new production of August Wilson's 1984 play Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (Lyttleton Auditorium at the National Theatre).
The year is 1927, the place is Chicago. In a recording studio on the city's South side, a battle of wills is raging. Ma Rainey, Mother of the Blues, uses every trick in the book to fight her record producers for control of her music. Hardened by years of ill-treatment and bad deals, she is determined that 'Black Bottom' the song that bears her name, will be recorded her way. But Levee, the band's swaggering young trumpet player plans to catapult the band into the jazz age and his ambition puts them all in danger.
Inspired by the real-life Blues legend and infused with her music, the show refracts racial politics through the prism of music and indeed the redemptive power of blues music at its heart. 2The blues help you get out of bed in the morning," Ma Rainey remarks at one point. "You get up knowing you ain't alone. There's someone else in the world … This is an empty world without the blues. I take the emptiness and try to fill it with something".
This isn't the perfect play. Much of the first half hour, for all its considerable appeal and tart humour, hovers in a state of suspended animation as we await the arrival of the great diva who ultimately seems an absence at the heart of the story. Wilson's real focus is on Ma's four-piece band who rehearse a little and bicker a lot as they wait. Sparky banter slides into discussion of the black man's place in society and his relationship with the white studio basses upstairs. These musicians might be successful black men, a generation born free, now suited, booted and earning $25 a day, yet they are still scarred by the past, particularly so in Levee's case stabbed as a child, fighting off a mob that gang-raped his mother and then witnessing his father being hanged and set alight.
Wilson's painful and sometimes anguished play, however, really gathers momentum in the second half and achieved a true level of brilliance that leaves an indelible impact. Of course, it could have been Wilson's true aim to contrast the easy-going witty banter of the first half, with the forceful drama and eventual tragedy of the second.
Designer Ultz creates a realistic studio setting made up of a metal crate for the sound booth suspended by chain cables while the band are crammed into a windowless rehearsal room downstairs.
Director Dominic Cooke elicits a super central performance from Sharon D Clarke as the fierce formidable Ma Rainey, and whose velvet voice shows just how accomplished she is as an actor and singer. Equally impressive is O-T Fagbenle in the defining role of the volatile charismatic trumpeter Levee. Strong support is given by Lucian Msamati as the old-time pianist Toledo, Clint Dyer as the obsequious trombonist Cutler, Tunji Lucas as Ma's stammering nephew, Sylvester, Finbar Lynch as the manager Irvin, Stuart McQuarrie as the studio owner, and recent RADA graduate Tamara Lawrance as Ma's girlfriend, Dussie Mae.
A first-rate production then which richly deserves a West End transfer.
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
Runs at the Lyttleton Auditorium in the National Theatre until Wednesday 18 May 2016.
Box office: 020 7452 3000
Last modified: April 7, 2021