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FringeReview UK 2016

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

National Theatre

Genre: Drama, Theatre

Venue: National Theatre


Low Down

Dominic Cooke brings back August Wilson’s 1984 play to the National for the first time since its Cottesloe debut of 1989. Now framed in the Lyttleton, Sharon D Clarke and O-T Fagbenle lead a supremely accomplished cast who both play and sing. Ultz’s designs sharply point up the system.


Dominic Cooke brings Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, August Wilson’s 1984 breakthrough play, to the National’s Lyttleton. It premiered at the NT’s then Cottesloe in 1989. This revival is sovereign: near-faultless casting and direction serving to underline the astonishingly-low profile Wilson still endures here.

Wilson’s known for his ten-part Pittsburgh Cycle of Twentieth-Century Black American experience. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom comes chronologically third: first to be produced, fourth sketched.

It’s paradoxically the one not set in Pittsburgh at all, but 1927 Chicago where the eponymous real-life blues legend (who taught Bessie Smith) arrives with four-part band, nephew Sylvester and girlfriend Dussie Mae to record her latest hits. She tours in the South; the North’s turned its back on the Blues.

In designer Ultz’s recording shack-on-stilts, like gods in a compound, white record producer Sturdyvant tetchily orders Irvin, Rainey’s manager, to get Rainey in, record and get her out. Irvin thinks he can handle black people; Finbar Lynch’s wiry fixer fidgets his side of the bargain forward.

Ma Rainey though, the glorious Sharon D Clarke arriving in a royal progress – once an arresting Irish policeman has been shed with a bribe – has clear ideas: what she’ll record, whose arrangement, who’ll sing with her: her stuttering nephew. Clarke’s imperious assurance as well as singing, shouts Mother of the Blues. More as lover, she tries too to ensure Dussie Mae (debuting Tamara Lawrance) isn’t seduced by anyone else, but Dussie Mae too has ambitions. Tunji Lucas’s Sylvester has a daunting stammer to enact, shed, re-acquire.

That however marks the nominal trajectory in an ensemble drama. Grittier experience spills out in Ultz’s Lytteleton creation of a basement echoing that shack: a slavishly narrow below-stairs rehearsal room for the bandsmen where dreams and dark collide, fully counterpointing anything above – and each unfold a narrative. Wilson’s naturalistic dialogue uncoils seemingly at leisure around sour tunings-up: first weary Cutler (Clint Dyer) whose steadiness leads from the trombone; Giles Serera’s glinting Slow Drag, a bassist sashaying wit. Toledo’s auto-didact pianist Lucian Mismati expounds on black people sidelined by history.

All in their fifties wait for young trumpeter Levee O-T Fagbenle who enters white-shoed with an arrangement Sturdyvant’s asked him to make of the Black Bottom intro, leading him head-on with Ma Rainey’s implacable decision. But Levee has ambitions: he can blow his own, write music, he’s given Sturdyvant scores. You sense the new scraping past the old; that’s the trouble. Accused of courting whites, Fagbenle‘s Levee literally shows and tells his story: the simple dialogic of old devisings and new compromise writhes in a fury for recognition. Fagbenle’s repertoire of wafer suavity, apparent servility and dance of vengeance make his performance a standout, partly because Mismati baits him so well.

Blues for the ensemble arrive in the second half; all play with an authentic tang too. More would have been thrilling, but this isn’t a short play. What a pity though this isn’t being broadcast live.

Confrontations between Clark and Lynch as Stuart McQuarrie’s Sturdyvant again and again throws banana-peels under Lynch’s placations, are a contrapuntal joy, oil on sandpaper. Clarke’s dismissal too of Levee’s arrangement and the shiveringly arrogant Levee himself own an analogue further along. Above all it’s a triumph of un-illusion in the great survivors. Clarke’s Rainey knows she’s expendable once she signs her release forms for example.

Some outcomes might be predicted: we know a recording was made. But I defy anyone to predict the astonishing denouement after Rainey marches out, where all kinds of transference of the Black American experience compress. Instruments are blatently positioned: we’ll trip over them. Wilson’s learnt that twist from Amiri Bakara; he repays with more than interest in this already-masterly drama, Chekhovian in its layered finality. Cooke paces its large orchestration swiftly, and you find to your shock, unerringly.