There was a very big divide in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.
No, not between Phil and Andrew, they were in accord. It was the show itself which came in two very separate parts. Act 2 is rather riveting but at the interval Phil thought it was desperately in search of a plot, or as Andrew more grandly declared “a narrative”.
Anyhoo, the ahem, narrative, such as it is, finds us in Chicago recording studio in the 1920s. “Mother of the Blues” Ma Rainey (Sharon D Clarke) – when she eventually turns up – is here to record a new album of her songs. Waiting for her are her producer (Stuart McQuarrie) and manager (Finbar Lynch) and her band, Cutler (Clint Dyer), Toledo (Lucian Msamati), Slow Drag (Giles Terera), and Levee (O-T Fagbenle).
The musicians descend into a rehearsal room that rises like a giant letterbox at the front of the stage (letterbox stage design by Ultz cf Annie Get Your Gun), and spend most of their time bickering, telling stories, philosophising and giving Tarantino a run for his money with their overuse of the N-word, while the white producer and manager rise up above in their giant tin portacabin sound booth which is sealed off with a no admittance sign. Yup, we got that. Clever.
Clarke deliberately makes her Ma difficult to warm to. She’s a diva from the off and needs the full control she can’t have in ordinary life, even though she knows she’s making money for the white folks the studio is where she can reign. Her ‘Black Bottom’ will be done her way or not at all and certainly not a potentially more popular version arranged by Levee. They’ll be no singing unless she’s given a Coca Cola and won’t perform unless her stammering nephew Sylvester (Tunji Lucas, very tall, very likeable) performs the spoken intro to one of her numbers and receives a full cash payment for his efforts. Clarke is brilliantly scary, with the best diva stare since, ooo, probably Tyne Daly in Master Class.
But the play is centred less on Ma than her band and August Wilson‘s 1984 play has surprisingly little singing or music especially given this is at the National where they love to drag out the running time with a bit of singing and music.
Director Dominic Cooke has coaxed brilliant performances out of the boys in the band, Dyer, Terera, Fagbenle and Msamati (who will be playing Salieri in Amadeus at the National later this year) and they appear to play their instruments too. Imagine the understudying complications. Well, we think they played their instruments, if they weren’t it was superbly faked. There’s also fine work from Tamara Lawrence as Ma’s girlfriend Dussie Mae who gets taken downstairs (in both senses) by one of the band.
Don’t expect any Oscars-style “snubs” when it comes to the theatre awards season here.