Review: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (National Theatre, London)

What’s it all about?

Despite the name of the play this isn’t so much about the 1927 song Black Bottom but more about the events surrounding the recording of it. Taking place within the recording studio, it focuses on Ma Rainey’s band, their relationships with one another, and the power struggle between Ma Rainey and studio over ownership of her music. Who is in charge? The white management team or the black lead singer?

During the course of the play we hear the back story of each member of the band as we learn the driving forces behind their unique personalities, we look at an ageing black singer doing everything she can to hold on to control of her own career, and we ultimately see that despite her and the band’s best efforts, ultimately the white management retain control.

The words…

This was my first experience of August Wilson’s 1982 play, and it’s made me realise that I need to put more time aside to familiarise myself with the rest of his portfolio. There’s a realism to the language that feels very natural – Wilson goes to great length to write black characters talking in the way that he was familiar with growing up, and in doing so he gives each the credibility they need to carry the themes of the play. And here, half the fun is in the characters’ exchanges with one another, the playfulness of their conversations, and ultimately in their lack of understanding of one another. It’s this confusion and the earlier discussions that set the tone and power balance between Levee and the rest of the group, and that ultimately drive the later events.

There’s also no denying that at its core this is a social commentary, and much of the play focuses on the relationship between black and white people of the time. Here, the scenes with Ma Rainey are used to show the relationship in evidence, and it’s her struggle to retain control against the studio manager Sturdyvant and her manager Irvin that shows us the fight being discussed and looked upon by the band. It’s an important social conversation and it’s one that is safe in Wilson’s hands.

The talent…

And what talent there is! Despite the name of the play, this is really about the tetrad that is the band. Not to take anything away from Sharon D. Clarke in the title role (it’s difficult to imagine anyone else could suit the role more), but O-T Fagbenle, Lucian Msamati, Giles Terera and Clint Dyer live and breathe their characters, and the production is at its best when giving us a fly on the wall view of their rehearsal room. O-T Fagbenle plays Levee with an unsure arrogance that makes him terrifying yet completely vulnerable during his stripped back act one confession, Lucian Msamati is the embodiment of Toledo bringing a much needed maturity to events, Giles Terera’s Slow Drag is the perfect watcher on the side lines (while providing stunning vocals to accompany a couple of choice scenes), and Clint Dyer as Cutler adds just the right amount of humour to lighten the mood while forcing Levee’s hand. I could happily have watched another hour or two of their exchanges.

The design…

I’m torn on Ultz’s set design. On the one hand it is visually quite striking, with a solitary metal box hanging from the rafters and a spiral staircase descending into the stage. It’s a stripped back visual that evokes a sparse recording studio while refusing the let the story be overcome by over-realism. But on the other hand, it seems fussy, using a number of lifts at the front of the Lyttelton stage to raise and descend the band’s rehearsal room – a decision that only leads to fairly repetitive and unnecessarily lengthy scene changes. Still, there’s nothing drastically wrong here, and the initial transition is visually striking and unexpected.

The special mention…

This goes to Tim Sutton’s use of music in the play. It’s used sparingly, but the act one finale is incredibly moving with just a few moments of song as the stage descends following Levee’s confession (a very commendable performance by O-T Fagbenle that deserves recognition). The tone of the music, the vocals by Terera and the stage movement come together to make for a very powerful conclusion.

Verdict: ★★★★☆

If I could throw in an extra half star I would. The cast are beyond perfect for their roles, the design is visually striking (if a tad fussy) and the play really hits the mark with such tight direction by Dominic Cooke. I urge you to go and see this if you can because it’s been a while since I’ve seen a production at National Theatre that’s as high quality as this is.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is playing in the Lyttelton auditorium at National Theatre in rep until 18th May and tickets are available from the National Theatre website.

And the view…

Stalls, row A, seat 17. While there was a touch of post-show neck ache, you really can’t knock the view from here. The stage is low enough that it’s a relatively comfortable viewing angle and the row is so far away from the stage that you can properly stretch your legs out in front. That said, I’m convinced these front row seats without armrests at the National are more uncomfortable than others in the auditorium.

Lyttelton Theatre, Stalls, Row A, Seat 17
Lyttelton Theatre, Stalls, Row A, Seat 17

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Graham says:

    excellent review which i happen to agree with!

    1. Ade John Leader says:

      Thank you! Absolutely loved this production. Pleased you felt the same.

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