Ma Rainey's Black Bottom review – August Wilson's blues still electrify

Lyttelton theatre, London
This big, bold piece about 1920s race relations is a play of passion and power, starring a majestic Sharon D Clarke as the bisexual singer

August Wilson’s play has enormous historical significance in that, in 1984, it became the first African American drama since A Raisin in the Sun (1959) to become a Broadway hit. Although it was given its British premiere at the Cottesloe in 1989, its revival now signifies the determination of Rufus Norris’s National to address racial issues and appeal to diverse audiences.

Wilson’s big, bold play tackles two major subjects: black history and white exploitation. Its setting is a Chicago recording studio in 1927, where the real-life blues singer Ma Rainey has come to cut some new discs. While Rainey may be a despotic diva in the studio, Wilson makes clear she has little clout in the white world beyond. Much of the play’s focus, however, is on the quarrels in her band, and in particular on the simmering spat between the individualistic Levee, who hopes to sell his music to the studio boss, and the bookish Toledo, who believes progress depends on collective action.

Arguments rage over which arrangement of the title song is to be used but, in the end, the much interrupted session becomes a metaphor for division, oppression and enforced black complicity with white, capitalist power structures.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at the National Theatre
A difficult recording session becomes a metaphor for division and oppression in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at the National Theatre, London. Photograph: Johan Persson

The point is reinforced with admirable clarity in Ultz’s design, where the four musicians occupy a subterranean band room while Ma Rainey’s white manager and the studio owner, who makes pointed use of a “No Admittance” sign, squat in a lofty, sealed-off booth. While the action sometimes seems suspended for confessional monologues, Wilson in reality relies on oral tradition to capture the complexity of black experience. You see this at its most vivid when Levee, accused of ingratiation with the white bosses, reveals a traumatic family history that explains his desire for long-term revenge. The didactic Toledo also sets the band’s quarrels in context by reminding his colleagues that, in a white world, “they are leftovers from history”.

It’s a play of passion and power that, in Dominic Cooke’s excellent revival, gets some major performances. Sharon D Clarke lends the bisexual Ma Rainey a majestic composure and a fine voice – that she knows has little purchase beyond her chosen terrain.

O-T Fagbenle is an electrifying Levee filled with a restless energy that seems determined to explode the walls of the band room and that is perfectly counterpointed by the obdurate, hectoring stillness of Lucian Msamati as Toledo. Clint Dyer and Giles Terera as the band’s trombonist and double-bass player embody different aspects of religious orthodoxy and combine with the others to make fine music. But perhaps the most moving aspect of the evening was seeing a genuinely mixed audience rising to this landmark play.


Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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