Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

With accusations of racism at the Oscars, the play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom about black experience in the entertainment industry is having a timely revival. Tazmin Aldis reviews.

National Theater/Johan Persson

National Theatre/Johan Persson

Reportedly one of August Wilson’s finest works, the play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is set in 1927’s Chicago. Fundamentally the plot centres itself around a black singer, the ‘Mother of Blues’, one Ms Ma Rainey and the recording of her Black Bottom single. But within the story the script deals with deeper political struggles that polluted the society of the Jazz age for African Americans. The actors in the play seamlessly conveyed the characters created by Wilson.

The entire play is set in the same recording studio, yet keeps the audience engaged through the clever use of set design and mechanisms to extend or reduce the stage as part of the action.

Ma Rainey fulfils the archetype of a strong, independent black woman who takes no nonsense, including from her music producer. This was emphasised by her delayed entrance into the play, so that even the audience felt at her disposal. All the black roles had character traits that made the audience recognise them as individual people rather than just extracts of characters in a play. For me the writing rang truest with the four band members; Toledo the pianist, an intellectual and philosopher, Cutler, the leader of the band with his ‘one, two, ah you know what to do’ counting-in catchphrase, Slow Drag, the calm and collected bass player and Levee, an ambitious horn player and dedicated ladies’ man.

The variety of interactions that come from the personality combinations was an abundant source of humour throughout the production. Although, this is frequently contrasted to horrific stories of racial prejudice and persecution: a contrast which could turn the audience from roaring laughter to complete and utter gripping silence in a matter of seconds.

By the end of the play the racism of the white producer is laid bare. The subtle writing struck a chord as it immediately reminded me of Dreamgirls. The impact on Levee causes him to become hostile and leads to the lives of the players being turned around in moments. Finally, what I personally found most impactful was a set of stairs that we only ever see the white manager and producer ascend, a set of stairs that the producer kept off limits to all other characters, so the audience’s eye is almost trained to only see white people on those stairs, which is used to make a powerful point at the end.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was one of the most enjoyable and poignant plays that I have had the privilege of seeing and if you would also like to experience this brilliant representation of Wilson’s work, well, ‘one, two, ah you know what to do…’.

Performances at the National Theatre until 18 May. 

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