Thursday, 4 February 2016

Theatre review: Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Here’s a staggering fact for you: between 1959 and 1984 there wasn't a single African American play on Broadway that was considered a success.

The bookends? Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun and August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. And whilst I think most people will have heard of the former (trans: I have heard of it) I'm not sure that the latter is so well known (trans: I hadn't heard of it). Which is a shame really because, as the new production just opened at the NT proves, it’s a seriously good, seriously intelligent piece.

Image source. (This programme is excellent btw, even by the NT's high standards.)

The play tells the story of the real life Ma Rainey, Mother of the Blues, and her fight to record her eponymous song (see the play’s title for more information) in her way despite pressure from the onset of the jazz age, personified by her band’s bravura trumpet player Levee, and the racist society she inhabits, aka her white agent and record company boss.

Ma Rainey herself is brilliantly brought to life by the always awesome (even in Holby City) Sharon D Clarke at her imperious, feisty, honey-voiced best. I wish the play made more use of its title character, she is so interesting. A powerful (to the extent society allowed), bisexual, black woman kicking ass in the jazz age is not an oft-used character type and both Ma Rainey the real person and Sharon D Clarke’s interpretation of her merit more exploration and stage time. As it is, she enters mid way through the first act and exits well before the end of the second. It’s a shame as she really does light up the stage in the limited time she’s on it. And of course her singing is reliably spectacular.

This is not a criticism of the rest of the cast, mind. Instead of focussing on Ma Rainey, the play actually spends most of its time with her band who, although you don’t learn that much about them, are all fantastically realised by their respective actors. Kudos especially to O-T Fagbenle as a firecracker Levee, all personal ambition, restless energy and impotent rage, who excels in the three most violently emotive scenes in the piece (no spoilers). He is expertly balanced by Lucian Msamati - increasingly one of my favourite actors - as the still, stubborn, slightly ranty pianist Toledo who is more concerned with communal action to advance the cause of racial equality. They offset and balance each other brilliantly and their interplay is one of the best features of this production.

Also excelling is designer Ultz with a fantastically innovative set that reinforces the play’s exploration of black/white power. A sort of metallic portakabin, suspended above the set on chains, is the recording studio booth where the white characters live - there’s even a no entry sign across the bottom of the spiral staircase that connects the booth to the studio, where the black characters are of course actually making the music, just to reinforce the point. Meanwhile, the band are relegated to the underground band room - a portion of the set that rises from the stage when it is required, with the booth on its chains being raised to make sure it stays above them - only permitted into the studio when Ma Rainey is there. It’s possibly slightly heavy handed, but it works and, technically, it’s very cleverly done.

There are two things that this production needed, aside from more Ma Rainey, to make me love it unequivocally. The first is more music - this is a play set in the world of jazz and blues and, although there is some music, for my money there could've been way more. The second is a hefty cut to act one which feels slow and repetitive at times; glorious though the writing and the use of language is, a lot of words are expended for no movement of the plot or, really, the characters before the interval. I would've loved to learn a bit more about the band members personal histories (Levee excepted) alongside the collective black history that the play presents. Act two feels much better paced though and is definitely not short on action.

Overall, I really enjoyed Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Quibbles aside, it’s wonderfully acted, beautifully staged and has an air of authenticity that not many pieces of this period ever manage to muster. Definitely worth a look.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is playing in the Lyttelton at the NT until 18th May.

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