Ma Rainey, if you didn’t know, was the ‘Mother of the Blues’ whose formidable voice and intimidating personality made her famous – at least among black folk – in 1920s America.
But August Wilson’s engaging stage play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which has just opened at the National Theatre, is less to do with this redoubtable woman and more to do with an angry, embittered young man whose traumatic childhood of bigotry and prejudice defines his future.
It’s impossible not to be mesmerised by Sharon D Clarke’s powerhouse turn as bi-sexual Gertrude Rainey but it’s the story of O-T Fagbenle’s horn player, Levee, which leaves a lasting impression.
Our final glimpse of him is as a broken man, pushing his crumpled body into a rehearsal room wall on the vast Lyttelton stage, his eyes darting about looking for salvation after a momentary loss of control results in a terrible and unexpected tragedy.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is set in a Chicago recording studio where the diva is expected to lay down her latest album. The boys in the band arrive first and are shown to the basement rehearsal room where they bicker, josh with each other, and enjoy the sort of intimate friendship that comes from working more than 20 years together.
Piano player, Toledo (Lucian Msamati) is the group’s philosopher, pontificating about the lot of the black man and their relationship with the rest of the world, using his self-taught education that’s gleaned from books and newspapers to impress and confound his band mates, most of who can’t read.
Trombonist Cutler (Clint Dyer) and Giles Terera’s reserved bass player, Slow Drag, make up the established trio who are at odds with their fourth player, the hotheaded Levee. Levee is a peacock, strutting about in his shiny new white shoes and flash suit, boasting about how he is a class above the others, a person going places, a man with ambition.
It’s impossible to like this arrogant, obnoxious, young Turk who rails at the world and defies the existence of God – until one extraordinary scene which closes the first act. Here we learn about Levee’s childhood in a spellbinding performance that has the audience sitting transfixed by the emotional horror of it.
The play is very much a power struggle between Rainey and her white producer, Sturdyvant (Stuart McQuarrie) intercut with an insightful look at the life of black musicians struggling for recognition and respect. Ma Rainey is considered a superstar among her people but she can’t get a ride from a white cab driver.
O-T Fagbenle has to utter possibly the worst line of dialogue ever spoken on a National Theatre stage: “Can I introduce my red rooster to your brown hen?” (and manages to keep a straight face) but the moment of levity and seduction is soon forgotten as the unstable and desperate man loses control over a trifling incident.
It is wondrous listening to snatches of blues and jazz in the unlikely setting of the National Theatre, and let’s hope for more in future. I’d love to have heard some worked up, full production numbers but this drama isn’t the place (though surely Ma Rainey’s blues are ripe for a full-blooded musical?) .
But the intimacy of the play is lost on the huge, mostly empty, stage of the Lyttelton despite a cleverly designed set from Ultz that sees the rehearsal room rise and fall from the floor.
Sharon D Clarke has a spectacular voice, deep and rich, dripping with emotion, and she gives a terrific turn as the fearsome and indomitable Ma Rainey.
This is a classy performance from the entire ensemble with Msamati, Dyer, Terera and Fagbenle giving good value as actor/ musicians. There are times, however, when director Dominic Cooke, could have a tighter rein on their rehearsal room scenes which, entertaining as they are, are occasionally overlong.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom runs at the National Theatre until May 18.
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
Sharon D Clarke sings the blues in the sensational Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, a powerfully told story of prejudice and power in 1920s America from the pen of August Wilson.