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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

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

MOTHER OF THE BLUES
By MICHAEL COVENEY

  (L to R) O-T Fagbenle and Giles Terera/ Ph: Johan Persson

August Wilsons breakthrough play opened on Broadway in 1985 and heralded the arrival of a major American dramatist of the 20th century, charting the black struggle from slavery to the civil rights movement, in this case in a Chicago recording studio in 1927.
 
Ma Rainey, "mother of the blues" and precursor to Bessie Smith, is cutting a disc – on her terms. Just how this fans out into a vivid, angry, detailed study of the black experience with a savage, surprise twist of tragedy at the end, is both a marvel in the writing and a tribute to Dominic Cooke’s magnificent production in the Lyttelton at the National.
 
The play was good at the National in 1989, in a more intimate production by Howard Davies in the Cottesloe (now the Dorfman). American jazz singer Carol Woods was Ma, Clarke Peters and Hugh Quarshie two of her fractious backing quartet. Cooke has cast the magisterial Sharon D Clarke as Ma – an hour late for her session and demanding her supply of Coke (the drink) and her own version of the title song – and the RSC's recent black Iago, Lucian Msamati, as the pianist Toledo and the limber-limbed, dangerously jumpy O-T Fagbenle as trumpeter Levee, his quarrelsome sidekick and nemesis.
 
Ma Rainey – Clarke, swathed in furs and glittering emerald dress, her great velvety voice rising like a warm river – is defining the musical style but behaving like a diva, giving the run-around to the exasperated record producer (Stuart McQuarrie) and her own manager (Finbar Lynch).
 
The main focus, though, is on her quartet members, who rehearse, banter and unravel stories of hard luck, rape, racism and humiliation. Damaged Levee, whose mother was raped by a white gang, is at odds with Toledo, while the bassist Slow Drag (sad-eyed, lovable Giles Terera) and excitable trombonist Cutler (Clint Dyer, expressively irritable) hold the ring.
 
Two things about these guys: Wilson weaves their extended, vivid stories into the texture of the play’s action without strain. They play the music as if for real, Paul Ardittis sound design magically synchronising their blowing and strumming with a discreetly operated backing track.
 
The design of Ultz also solves the problem of the Lyttelton (too wide a stage, tricky acoustics) by boldly creating three separate, fluidly interconnected areas: the control and mixing desk floating above in a huge container; the sound-proofed music room rising like a long railway carriage at the front of the stage, cleverly occupied in Cooke’s never-too-linear blocking; and the studio at ground level.
 
Ma Rainey has her stuttering nephew (Tunji Lucas) and close friend Dussie Mae (Tamara Lawrance) in tow, the first, she insists, singing on the title song recording, the second waylaid downstairs by the loose cannon Levee (“Can I introduce my red rooster to your brown hen?”). Making black music for a white industry brings added tension all round, leading to a tragic twist that reinforces the pain of the blues in a hostile culture.
 
For this is a play with a few songs, not a musical, and there’s nothing sweetened about the ugliness of role-playing within this enclosed environment and the society beyond. Poverty and religion are twin tools and symptoms of exploitation, and Levee’s new white shoes prompt a swipe at the shoe-shine business before they are pressed into more unfortunate symbolic service. It’s difficult to watch the play without squirming, but you also marvel at its almost accidental celebration of the human spirit in circumstances of cruel adversity.

 


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