Last month, Queen Latifah won a SAG Award for her performance as blues legend Bessie Smith in Bessie. The biopic also featured Mo’Nique, who played Ma Rainey – Bessie’s one-time mentor and ‘Mother of the Blues’. The iconic Rainey is now being portrayed on the stage in the revival of the August Wilson play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. The story covers a recording session in Chicago where Ma – under pressure to update her sound – has been persuaded by her manager to record some new songs, including the one that gives the play its title.
However, that title is a slight red herring. If you weren’t aware that the narrative doesn’t centre around Ma, you’ll realise it by the time you get to 30 minutes in and she still hasn’t appeared. But while the nominal star of the show isn’t present, her band is. They are meant to be rehearsing in preparation for Ma’s arrival, but spend most of the time bickering.
The band is made up of four black men: Toledo; Cutler; Slow Drag; and Levee, whose differing personalities fuel the story’s drama. Toledo – the eldest of the tetrad – is bookish and cerebral; he spends his time either with his head in a newspaper, or trying to explain the functionality of white supremacy to his fellow bandmates (although his analysis is restricted to a cishetero male prism).
Slow Drag is the most reserved, wanting a quick and easy recording session, free of ancillary complications, while Cutler is the ostensible band leader, but lacks Toledo’s poise and intellect. He also holds Toledo in huge esteem, often agreeing with his exegesis, not because he understands it, but because he wants Toledo’s affirmation.
The quartet is rounded off by the lusty and jejune Levee: a man who is one part nihilistic, and two parts ambitious. He views this job as beneath him, a stepping stone on his way to fronting his own band, and acquiring the attendant clover of fame. Powered by epicurean self-interest, he is the antithesis of Toledo, and as such is often the oxidant to the verbal confrontations in the story.
As Ma finally arrives – after an altercation with a police officer – it turns out that it’s not only his bandmates that Levee has discord with. He has rewritten ‘Black Bottom’ to bring it into the jazz age. But Ma flatly refuses to record this alteration, her pertinacious resolve meaning that she will not be dictated to by anyone. She is a blues singer, and ‘Black Bottom’ will stay as a blues song.
With lesser writing and a weaker performance, Ma would be a one-dimensional Angry Black Woman. But two important one-on-one scenes add vital depth to the character: Ma explaining the purpose of the blues, and what it means to black people; the other being the solicitous treatment of her nephew, Sylvester, who she makes part of the recording, despite him having a notable stutter.
It also helps that Sharon D Clarke is thoroughly commanding as Ma. Even though her appearances are intermittent, she assumes natural control whenever she is on stage. Both her speaking and singing voices have a honeyed sonorousness. She makes a difficult role look gelastically easy.
The other displays that will likely catch your eye are Lucian Msamati as Toledo and O-T Fagbenle as Levee, and they are both outstanding (the money scene of the play comes with Levee telling a heinous story about his past, which goes some to explaining the character’s motivations).
But I feel it unfair to single them out. Much of the viewing pleasure comes from the coaction between the entire cast, and that doesn’t happen without Clint Dyer, Giles Terera, Tamara Lawrence, Tunji Lucas, Finbar Lynch, Stuart McQuarrie, and John Paul Connolly. They combine to produce moments of high mirth as well as compelling drama. None of their careers should regress after the work they produce in this.
The cramped rehearsal space works as a crucible for the band. Much like 12 Angry Men, put enough people in an enclosed space for long enough, then superficial niceties will soon dissipate, and one’s true self is all that’s left.
The agitation among the players is as a result of them fighting for respective – and individual – agency in a world that’s given them none. And even though they all need each other to progress, they can’t (or won’t) acknowledge it. One can look to the Michael Gambon monologue from Layer Cake to reveal the core of the tale.
One of the many impressive aspects of the play was the set design. It contains a clear allegory for the structure of white supremacy, and finds an astute way to render three separate floors when ostensibly only having one. Dominic Cooke also warrants a lot of credit for his tremendous direction.
While always entertaining, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is an ultimately heartbreaking story. Dominic Maxwell’s review observes; “We come to see that each is trying to argue for a way of living that’s neither nostalgic nor rootless: trying to work out what it means to be authentically African-American.”
As the cast took their applause at the end, large swathes of the audience gave them a merited standing ovation. You’ll likely do the same if you catch this play.
 – One of the play’s many humourous anecdotes explains how Slow Drag got his name.
 – We can take it as read that the altercation is racially motivated.
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