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Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

National Theatre presents MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM, by August Wilson, in the Lyttelton Theatre, National Theatre, London, U.K.

August Wilson wrote a cycle of ten plays spanning the 20th century, often referred to as the Pittsburg Cycle, of which MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM, is the second, written in 1984. He was born in 1945 and died in 2005. The plays form a kind of fever chart of the trauma of slavery. Their historical trajectory takes African-Americans through their transition from property to personhood – ‘a profound articulation of the Black Tradition’. I have been fortunate to have seen many of these plays, having worked in the USA, and because of the African-American population of the cast in all of the plays, the likelihood of seeing them in Australia is very small, and is, in my estimation, a great loss to us, as they are remarkable stories articulated brilliantly by characters of shining passions of humanity. I have always felt the cultural reference, understanding, for me, of these texts, was an identification to the similarities to the Irish playwrights such as Sean O’Casey and John Millington Synge, even the plays of Australian Peter Kenna, especially THE SLAUGHTER OF ST. TERESA’S DAY (1959) and A HARD GOD (1974).

This production of MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM at the National Theatre, is the second, the first produced in 1989. Many of the other plays have appeared at the company and, of course, in London, elsewhere.

Ma Rainey, an actual figure of Jazz history, was “a short, dark-skinned, wild-haired bi-sexual woman who chose to  record a rough-house dance number, her version of the ‘Black Bottom’, at a Paramount session in Chicago, early in December 1927.” [1]  It concentrates on the interaction between the passionately rancorous performers, arguing through the new developments of jazz as a recording genre, but also has a powerfully subtle observation of the harsh racism of a white-run recording company prepared to make economic rationalist decisions to make money from these gloriously talented but fiercely discriminated members of American society. Ma Rainey was known as ‘The Paramount Wildcat’, the ‘Gold Necklace Woman of the Blues’.

On a two tiered Design, by Ultz, of the recording studio and a subterranean band room, the drama unfolds with carefully ratcheted tension and a glorious humour, laced with a hot breathed sexuality. All of the performers give wonderfully observed people, each with individual musical and political points of view, that pugnaciously round on each other, leading to a tragic ending. Lucian Msamati (Toledo), Giles Terera (Slow Drag), Clint Dyer (Cutler), and especially, O-T Fagbenle (Levee), in a stunningly moving portrait of an out-of-control trumpet player, punch out the politics and humour with a sense of veracity that vibrates with the pathos of a truly frustrated humanity. Ma Rainey (Sharon D Clarke) wields her sexual appetites with proprietorial ownership of the ingenue Dussie Mae (Tamara Laurance) and power entitlements in her insistent introduction of her stuttering nephew, Sylvester (Tunji Lucas, in a gorgeously created characterisation) to a solo role on the record in the recording session.

MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM is an absorbing and compelling production, Directed with expert detail and sympathetic cultural heartbeats, by Dominic Cooke. I observed that Mr Cooke also Directed my favourite production in my last visit to London: the Martin Crimp play, IN THE REPUBLIC OF HAPPINESS.

MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM has deservedly been nominated in the Best Revival category in the 2016 Olivier Awards. Let us hope it is part of the National Theatre Broadcasts, a not-to-be-missed event, if it is. Keep an eye out. It may be the only way, other than by visiting the USA or the UK to ever see August Wilson’s great contribution to Dramatic Literature.

1.From the Program Notes: Ma Rainey & The Blues, by Paul Oliver.

P.S. MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM was the winner of the Olivier Award for Best Revival. (April 3. 2016).