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Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

August Wilson
Lyttelton Theatre (National)

O-T Fagbenle, Clint Dyer, Sharon D Clarke and Finbar Lynch Credit: Johan Persson
The Company of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom Credit: Johan Persson
Clint Dyer, O-T Fagbenle and Giles Terera Credit: Johan Persson

August Wilson is one of the best playwrights of the last century, able to hold his own with the likes of Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller.

It is therefore something of mystery as to why none of his plays has been seen at the National since the transfer of Marion McCinton's production of Jitney 15 years ago.

One problem might be the continuing paucity of black actors, who are needed to people his depictions of America through the twentieth century.

Rather than his usual Pittsburgh, this play is set in Chicago during 1927 and tells the story of Gertrude (Ma) Rainey, a jazz-singing contemporary of Bessie Smith and, through this larger-than-life character, that of her people.

Dominic Cooke's revival, with a British cast, is a reminder of the quality of Wilson's Century Cycle and might persuade Rufus Norris to dip further into a richly rewarding canon.

The fearsome Ma Rainey, played with gusto by Sharon D Clarke, was known as "The Mother of the Blues". The lady is as powerful as her voice, unmercifully bullying two white men attempting to get rich on the back of her talent.

She could get away with such behaviour only because of the financial value of a unique blues voice to Stuart McQuarrie's producer Sturdyvant and her busily pacifying manager Irving, Finbar Lynch in good form.

However, as we learn before the end of the 2¾-hour drama, her colour makes Ma a second-class citizen and her music is still only popular on one side of the impassable racial border.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is a play about conflict and much of the drama takes place symbolically below decks in Ultz's triple decker design where a quartet of well-delineated band members continually boasts and bickers.

In particular, Lucien Msamati's pianist Toledo, a would-be intellectual, and O-T Fagbenle playing Levee joust constantly as representatives of old and new in terms of both jazz and mental outlook.

The latter has ideas far above his station, constantly rubbing everyone up the wrong way in a world where colour still matters.

However, after an hour or so of generally light-hearted joshing, August Wilson's ability to transform a play in an instant is demonstrated as he silences the audience with a truly terrifying look into Levee's family history.

A relatively sedate first half gives way to the music, typified by the title song, and more direct demonstrations of the facts of American life in the 1920s where slavery might be a thing of the past but equality can only be purchased for brief moments in a prejudiced and biased society.

The evening builds to a climax that makes a typically trenchant statement about the patronising attitudes of the white community to its black neighbours in the 1920s and the way in which this can make those who are downtrodden for too long react explosively.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom might not be August Wilson's very best work, taking a little too long to get into top gear, but it is characteristic and thought-provoking, helped by that unforgettable denouement.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher