Friday, 12 February 2016

'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom' at the National Theatre

Ma Rainey was the 'mother' of the blues back in the 1920s before Bessie Smith and this play was written about her in the early 1980s. Well, maybe not about her but about an episode that might've happened in her life. A day in the life of Ma Rainey in a recording studio in Chicago in 1927. And what do you have in a recording studio? You have the star (obv), the manager, the producer, the band and, probably some hangers on. So that's what we get in August Wilson's play, one of a series he wrote to depict the 'black experience' in America.

What we see is a play about a group of people all trying to get the best of life in hard times. The hard times is because they're black. It couldn't be plainer. Each member of the band has they're own story to tell, of how they were formed and how they ended up in the recording studio that day. Broken marriages and racial violence, a child being slashed with a knife for trying to protect his mother from rape, a black woman stopped in her own car for having a car, it's all in there somewhere. But not as a polemic - it's a play after all so we learn this over the couple of hours of the play.

Ma Rainey has a reputation for being difficult in the studio, it's made plain right at the start, and she is, but that's because she understands her art and won't compromise. It's also her only lever with the Man (who is obviously white). They want her voice but she's not going to give them what they want for free or in a cowards way, she stands up for herself and her people because she has the upper hand for once. They want her voice after all.

It's on the big Lyttleton stage at the National and that's probably not the best place for it since all the action is clustered in the centre wasting all that space on the empty stage. The musicians' rehearsal room is a long thin room that rises at the front of the stage, claustrophobic and, presumably, deep in the bowels of the studio. That's where most of the action is set, emphasising the wasted space of that big stage. I remember they used that 'pop-up' corridor of a room as trenches in a play set in Russia I saw there a few years ago (what was it called?).

The acting was all excellent, particularly the imperious Sharon D Clark who I've seen in a few plays now and I certainly wouldn't want to fall foul of her in her Ma Rainey persona. She ruled that stage and the musicians in her employ, arguing with her white manager and winning. Small victories but important to her. I liked O-T Fagbenie as the young trumpet playing Levee with high hopes for the future since the record producer wants his songs and has hopes for his own band. But the Man decides to rip him off anyway and buy the songs for $5 to 'take them off his hands'. And then it all goes wrong for Levee and he lets his lifelong rage out and ... but I won't spoil it for you.

This isn't an easy play to watch and I don't suppose it's easy to act, either. There's a lot of pain in this play, a lot of history that's never been really addressed. I found it a very thoughtful play, very thought-provoking and chilling by turns. Did all that really happen? Sadly, I suspect it did...

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