Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom: pulsing with power struggles, tensions and stop-start blues

Showing at the National Theatre until 18th May 2016

I had strong incentive not to like this play. The 1920s American jazz infused storyline is charged with a repellent sadness for me at the moment which almost had me going home at the interval. The fact that I didn’t is testament to the play’s merit. I wanted to sit it out and see the songs recorded, stutters and all.

Written by August Wilson in 1982, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is one of the 10 play Pittsburgh Cycle. In this revival Dominic Cooke takes the Lyttelton theatre and places it firmly in Chicago. It’s 1927, and we’re in a recording studio on the city’s South Side, waiting for the Mother of the Blues Ma Rainey (Sharon D Clarke) to show up. She doesn’t, for a while, though her band soon appear. It becomes clear this play isn’t really about the blues star that gives it its title, but the tensions and power struggles pulsing through the studios alongside the stop-start music. The four musicians are pushed to the front and bottom of the stage, confined to an ex-storage space, whilst the two producers stay cocooned in their elevated private office, surveying everything. The spiral staircase to their office is chained off with a warning ‘no entry’ sign to prohibit any unwelcome freedoms being taken.  They own the space, or try to.

Tensions mount within, outside and between these clearly defined spaces. Most memorable is the moment when musicians and producers momentarily come together on the main stage before the recording begins, the piano centre stage. A microcosm perhaps of the interracial tension of black and white rubbing along together in the same space in “free” America. There are plenty of power struggles – between the producers (“just let me handle it” pronounced with increasing frustration as the play progresses), between band members, between Ma and Levee – who’s version of the song is it we will hear recorded in the end? Levee’s, which makes the people dance and forget their troubles, the sound of the horn fitting nicely with the producer’s profit-calculated desire to move with changing tastes and “jazz it up” a bit? Or Ma’s? (or Madame’s, depending on who’s talking) – for whom singing is a way of understanding and getting through life, not just for blithely casting away cares. Songs are stories too. Maybe music helps make sense of things in a way that can be deeper than just shaking it off, Taylor Swift style. I should say, this is not a musical and in fact I wonder if the music will ever really start as Ma Rainey, in suitably diva-ish fashion, sheds her coat, demands the heating be cranked up – and then, just as everything seems ready, declares  “I aint singing without ma Coke”.

More sombre band player Toledo (Lucian Msamati) laments that whilst the black man is doing exactly what the white man thinks is good he is never going to work out who he is himself. The overwhelming tone is of disillusionment. Levee’s dream of having his own band is wrung out in 5 dollar shapes as he is manipulated and exploited by the cold machinery of the music industry. Are the songs art?  Or is it just about doing it right first time to save on studio time, just playing the piece – “art? what’s he talking about, drawing?”

At the close of the play the tensions bubble over in horrible climax, the no entry sign is forgotten and we are left looking upwards as the spiral staircase is ascended by a black band member. It’s unfinished, unresolved – what are we looking up to with such expectation?  A “white man’s god”? Or a dawning confidence that that’s it – this is the end, the applause is due and there is no more to see?

For “clodhopper” wearing Toledo style just means staying the same. Indeed the American entertainment industry still seems fixed in #OscarsSoWhite style and we are surely oh so overdue a true expression of diversity in all of the art forms we celebrate. Levee asks Toledo, what are you doing it make it better, different to any of the rest of us? It’s a question which reminds me of Marlon James’ recent video proclaiming anti-racism rather than non-racism. Oscar nominee Sylvester Stallone is quoted in the Guardian saying “I do believe that things will change. It’s a matter of time” ( . Maybe there’s something to be done to prompt the “new way of thinking” he speaks of along. It seems to me we are surrounded by a beautiful and ugly reality of diversity and I would like to see more of art that celebrates all of it – not as something polished and varnished into falseness, or as something ‘other’ – but just as part of a story, good bits and bad. If we are to learn and grow through listening to others’ experiences (as we do every time we hear a song which tells a story) surely it is only by seeing things through art in their entirety that we can hope to understand and appreciate the world we live in and be the richer for it.



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