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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM
at the National (Lyttelton)

BLACK STAR
By CLIVE HIRSCHHORN

  (L to R) O-T Fagbenle, Clint Dyer, Sharon D Clarke and Finbar Lynch/ Ph: Johan Persson

A little miracle has occurred at the Lyttelton Theatre, and the miracle worker responsible is director Dominc Cooke, whose magisterial revival of August Wilson’s 1984 play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom further enhances its reputation as one of the most important American plays of the 20th century. With incalculable assistance from a cast that could not be bettered on either side of the Atlantic, Cooke has dragged the recently ailing National Theatre out of its artistic doldrums and demonstrated that, at its very best, it has no equal.
 
Adding to the lustre of the occasion is the excitement that always follows the discovery of a new star. His name is O-T Fagbenle, and his breakout performance as Levee – a black, sartorially flash trumpeter, who, against all the odds, is trying to make his mark in the racist Chicago of 1927 – is simply electrifying.
 
Levee is the polar opposite of the play’s heroine, the real-life Gertrude (Ma) Rainey (1886-1939), who, together with her rival Bessie Smith, helped establish the blues as an American art form.
 
When we first meet Ma Rainey (Sharon D Clarke), she’s at the very peak of her career. True, as a person of colour she can’t hail a cab off a Chicago street, but she has a huge following and was one of the first black artists to sign a recording contract with Paramount records.
 
A super-sized, imperious, larger-than-life madame, she demands all the appurtenances of stardom, even though her fan base, as she must be aware, is predominantly black. She aIso knows that, because of her colour, she can’t enjoy the same level of success had she been white. But there’s nothing to stop her behaving like a temperamental diva – and she certainly does.
 
Unlike Levee, whose ambition is to have a band of his own and wants to give black dance music a more modern makeover, Ma Rainey is a traditionalist cemented into the urban roots of her musical upbringing. She prefers things just as they always were. He is more adventurous, and their clash of styles is just one of the many issues explored by Wilson in his remarkable play.
 
The central issue, though, is the soul-destroying racism of the period, the coruscating, demeaning effects of white supremacy and the irreparable damage it inflicts on its victims. 
 
The play begins genially enough in a Chicago recording studio. Much to the frustration of her long-suffering white manager (Finbar Lynch) and white producer (Stuart McQuarrie), Ma Rainey is an hour late for the session. And when she does finally arrive, she’s accompanied by her young lesbian lover (Tamara Lawrence) and her stuttering nephew Sylvester, whom she insists introduce one of the songs she’s about to record.
 
Meanwhile, in the studio’s rehearsal room, Ma’s regular band members – a quartet of black musicians – half-heartedly rehearse and jovially banter among themselves while waiting for the great lady to appear. There’s pianist Toledo (Lucian Msamati), proud of his African roots, who believes “we sold ourselves to the white man to be like him;” bassist Slow Drag (Giles Terera), nicknamed because of an incident on a dance floor; horn player Cutler (Clint Dyer); and the aforementioned Levee, who also composes music and hopes his new arrangement of the "Black Bottom" they’re about to record will meet with Ma Rainey’s approval. It doesn’t.
 
As these four musicians jovially exchange anecdotes, Wilson imperceptibly darkens the proceedings by interweaving a couple of appalling incidents of racial hatred as part of the band’s shared experience. He is as adept at juggling his themes as he is at juggling the play’s mood swings through an arc that wafts from trenchant humour, potential melodrama and, finally – given the unbridled anger he unleashes in the powerful second half – to tragedy.
 
This is not an easy play for a British cast to pull off, and it speaks volumes for the range and depth of Cooke’s awesome cast, which is every bit as good as the original company I first saw in New York. There isn’t a single moment that isn’t, quite simply, flawless.
 
Though you would hardly guess it from the way they handle their instruments, the four musicians were miming to a recorded music track. No matter, they’re totally convincing, especially Fagbenle. We’re barely into February, but I doubt whether I’ll see a better, more dynamic performance than his this year. 
 
There is no lip-synching from Clarke. Hers, too, is a great, award-worthy turn. It’s been quite a while that an evening in the theatre has been so uncompromisingly thrilling. The first-night bravos were absolutely deserved.

 


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