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The Theatreguide.London Review

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
Lyttelton Theatre  Winter-Spring 2016

This remarkable play, part of an even more remarkable cycle of plays by a remarkable playwright, delivers more insight and precise observation of race relations in America at a specific historical moment than any sociological study. It is also engrossing drama and theatre. 

August Wilson is the African-American playwright who set himself the challenge of writing ten plays about the black American experience, each set in and reflecting a different decade. 

His canon includes multiple award winners Fences, The Piano Lesson, Joe Turner's Come And Gone and this play, and he finished the cycle with the tenth play just before his death in 2006. 

Ma Rainey's Come And Gone imagines an actual historical event, a 1927 recording session by blues singer Gertrude 'Ma' Rainey.

(Another necessary pause for background: the blues referred to here and heard in the play is not the downbeat 'My baby done left me and I'm so sad' style, but a raunchy, soul-filled assertive music, challenging unhappiness with open sexuality – it is very much dirty-dancing music – and double or single entendre lyrics, as in the play's title.) 

The play watches Ma's backup band arrive for the session and rehearse, amiably chatting and arguing among themselves, and then parts of the recording session and its aftermath. 

The musicians offer a cross-section of types while all sharing the overriding experience of being 'coloured' in white America. 

The nearest thing the group has to an intellectual is a veteran trying to piece together a racial identity made up of African roots, Christian faith, superstition and an acute awareness of white racism. 

He's matched and ridiculed by a confident and ambitious youngster who is sure his talent will take him wherever he wants to go and who has no interest in the past or in understanding racial politics, and listened to without much interest by those band members who just want to be left alone to make their music and, preferably, get paid for it. 

Ma Rainey herself is well aware that she is just a commodity to her agent and the record company man (the only two white characters in the play), but knows that her one source of power lies in demanding payment – in cash and in respect – for what they want. 

Along the way, almost as casually as they toss around the not-always-antagonistic word 'nigga', each of the characters can describe experiences of white racism ranging from the merely humiliating to rape and lynchings, and there are extended set pieces and near-arias for each that dip deep into the tradition of oral storytelling. 

Black life in white America in the 1920s, the play shows (and doesn't just tell) us, was a still fluid and confusing mix of past horrors, present dangers, jumbled roots and no clear future. 

The play ends with an abrupt, casual and meaningless act of violence, evidence of the emotional pressures and confusion that we may realize only in retrospect Wilson has been warning us about all along. 

And all of this makes for engrossing, engaging and occasionally very funny drama. 

Musical theatre star Sharon D. Clarke invests Ma Rainey with a hard-won and constantly fought-for dignity, and rightly stops the show with her singing. 

The ever-reliable Lucian Msamati invests the thoughtful musician with a gravity and inner sadness that quietly evoke respect, while G-T Fagbenle captures all the attractive energy of the ambitious youngster while letting us sense the frustration and failure awaiting him. 

Director Dominic Cooke guides us to see that the play is happening precisely in those moments when nothing much seems to be happening, and designer Ultz makes imaginative and unobtrusive use of the Lyttelton Theatre's stage machinery. 

One theatre in America is planning a season of all ten August Wilson plays, and television productions of the full cycle are also spoken of. One thing I can assure you of is that seeing this all-but-flawless Ma Rainey will make you want to see the others.

Gerald Berkowitz


Review - Ma Rainey's Black Bottom  - National Theatre 2016  
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