Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom*** (National Theatre, Lyttelton)

Posted: March 24, 2016 in Theatre

ma_raineys_black_bottom_v2When a show is set in a recording studio, centres on 1920s blues music and boasts the wonderful Sharon D Clarke as the eponymous singer, perhaps we are entitled to expect more than just one song sung right through. Hence there is a sense of disappointment to overcome before reflecting on August Wilson’s fine writing. His 1982 play is a quiet but fierce indictment of racial segregation in America, relating stories of unjust discrimination and showing directly the corrosive effect that it has on those treated as second class human beings. Ma Rainey is a singing star, pampered like royalty by white-owned record companies because she is a marketable commodity. She responds by making unreasonable demands and treating those around, including her own race, as attendants at her court, but outside the studio in the real world, she cannot even hail a cab in the street. She is paid $250 for the session, the four men in her band get $25 each and it is the roles to which these four are consigned which concerns Wilson. They address each other repeatedly as “Nigger” as if to show disrespect and remind them of their place in society, but, more significantly, they show disrespect for themselves as if accepting their subservience. The exception is the young trumpeter Levee (O-T Fagbenle), not yet “broken in”, still prepared to challenge, unlike Cutler (Clint Dyer), Toledo (Lucian Msamati) and Slow Drag (Giles Terera) who seem tired of fighting the system and defeated. The white men – record producer Sturdyvant (Stuart McQuarrie) and Ma Rainey’s manager Irvin (Finbar Lynch) – sit in a a sort of Portakabin, elevated high at the back of the stage above the studio where Ma Rainey rules. Beneath them all, the band rehearses in a basement space that appears at the very front of stage. The set, designed by Ultz, reflects the social structure that is the play’s central theme, but the point that it makes is too obvious and not really necessary. A further problem with the set is that, for key scenes in the basement, actors are placed in unnatural positions lined up across the stage and their movement is restricted. Otherwise, Dominic Cooke’s production captures a feeling of real anger, often doing so more effectively by understating it. For the absence of more music, blame Wilson.

Performance date: 21 March 2016

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