The American Civil War ended and in December 1865, the 13th amendment to United States constitution abolished slavery and black men were free and equal with their white brothers in the ‘land of the free’. Well, that was the plan. Unfortunately, even decades later this wasn’t the truth and this is superbly demonstrated over the period of one day in Chicago recording studio in August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at the Lyttleton Theatre.
It’s going to be an interesting day in the recording studio as Ma Rainey (Sharon D Clarke) is a very successful recording artist with a bit of reputation as a diva. Studio Manager Mr Sturdyvant (Stuart McQuarrie) is trying to get reassurance from Ma’s Manager, Mr Irvin (Finbar Lynch) that she will sing a certain song with a jazz intonation, that he believes will be more commercially viable than her normal ‘blues’ style. As Irvin tries to reassure Sturdyvant, Ma’s band under leader and trombone player Cutler (Clint Dyer) arrive and go to the music room to rehearse and talk and generally kill time until Ma arrives. The band, comprises of piano player and political activist Toledo (Lucian Msamati), bass player Slow Drag (Giles Terera) and trumpeter Levee (O-T Fagbenle). It is obvious fairly quickly that Levee is the odd one out of the group. He doesn’t like playing ‘tub jug washboard band’ music and would much prefer to be writing and performing his own jazz music with his own band. In fact, he seems to really enjoy winding the others up – particularly Toledo. The temperature in the rehearsal room goes up as the boys get down to some real arguments and, as they say in diplomatic circles – some full and frank exchanges of view – while waiting for Ma to arrive. Eventually, an hour late, she does process into the studio along with her entourage, nephew Sylvester (Tunji Lucas) and a young lady by the name of Dussie Mae (Tamara Lawrance). Ma’s late arrival and insistence on singing her songs her way, lead everyone to have a long a difficult day with tempers getting fraught, horrible truths being revealed and arguments about very little escalating completely out of hand,
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a very cleverly written play that demonstrates just how little had really changed for the black population of America, even seventy years after emancipation. Even at its most basic level it shows that the black people do a lot of work, whilst the two white guys – Irvin and Sturdyvant – do very little for a large reward. This is very true in the case of Sturdyvant who never seems to miss an opportunity to prove himself better than the black men, particularly Levee. But there are other levels at work within the play addressing areas such as social standing, integration, assimilation, God, forgiveness and many more. The four boys have the lion’s share of the dialogue and they deliver it superbly as if they have been working together – bantering and winding each up – for a long long time. This was particularly true of O-T Fagbenle’s Levee who initially felt like a figure of fun, then changed to being annoying for its own sake and finally, at the end of Act I, moved me to tears with the story of his life – my emotions taking me completely by surprise. Of the other characters, I loved Ma Rainey who, thanks to some wonderful acting by Sharon D Clarke managed to project an air of Les Majesty simply by being – this woman throws the best diva strop over a coke I’ve ever seen. However, there one part of Ma’s character that felt wrong to me and that was the way she treated Sylvester. I will leave you to make up your own minds when you see it, but to me the writing didn’t feel as true as it did in the rest of the play.
Director Dominic Cooke and Designer Ultz have put together a splendid production with a set that demonstrates perfectly the difference in position between the whites – in their lofty secure box high above the rest – and the blacks – in their cramped underground room – and the transitions between scenes works nicely as the play progresses, though there are a couple of quiet periods where the machinery moving the set sounded quite loud. I’m going to be honest and say that by the end I was still not 100% sure which, if any, of the actors were playing their instruments or synching to pre-recorded music. There were definitely elements of both and Sound Designer Paul Arditti should be congratulated for merging them so well. Though my one gripe on this – I wanted to hear all of the songs Ma and her band were due to record because the music we did hear was absolutely spot on.
All in all Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a really superb play that probably needs more than one viewing to fully appreciate its impact. Given the recent discussions about recognition for BAME actors at the Oscars and the lack of black roles within the confines of commercial theatre, it was brilliant to see such a strong cast delivering a play that in so many ways is as relevant today as it was back in the day.
Review by Terry Eastham
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Chicago, 1927. In a recording studio on the city’s South Side, a battle of wills is raging.
Ma Rainey, Mother of the Blues, uses every trick in the book to fight her record producers for control of her music. Hardened by years of ill-treatment and bad deals, she’s determined that ‘Black Bottom’, the song that bears her name, will be recorded her way.
But Levee, the band’s swaggering young trumpet player, plans to catapult the band into the jazz age. His ambition puts them all in danger.
Inspired by the real-life Blues legend and infused with her music, August Wilson’s play speaks powerfully of a struggle for self-determination against overwhelming odds.
Understudy Dussie Mae – Teri Ann Bobb-Baxter
Ma Rainey – Sharon D Clarke
Understudy Toledo/Cutler – Ricardo Coke-Thomas
Policeman – John Paul Connolly
Understudy Levee – Jermaine Dominique
Cutler -Clint Dyer
Levee – O-T Fagbenle
Understudy Sturdyvant/Irvin – Stephen Fawkes
Dussie Mae – Tamara Lawrance
Sylvester – Tunji Lucas
Irvin – Finbar Lynch
Sturdyvant – Stuart McQuarrie
Toledo – Lucian Msamati
Understudy Sylvester/Slow Drag – Kadeem Pearse
Slow Drag – Giles Terera
Understudy Ma Rainey – Lucy Vandi
Director – Dominic Cooke
Designer – Ultz
Lighting Designer – Charles Balfour
Music – Tim Sutton
Sound Designer – Paul Arditti
Movement Director – Coral Messam
Fight Director – Bret Yount
Associate Designer – Sadeysa Greenaway-Bailey
Associate Sound Designer – Giles Thomas
Company Voice Work – Jeannette Nelson
Company Voice Work – Cathleen McCarron
Dialect Coach – Hazel Holder
Staff Director – Ola Ince
Booking From: 4th February 2016
Booking Until: 18th May 2016