Back in the day - actually it was 27 year's worth of days - I saw the National Theatre's production of MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM by August Wilson in the intimate Cottesloe Theatre. It stayed with me as being an exploration of the burgeoning success of black jazz and blues performers and musicians within the 'race' recording companies while also boasting impressive performances from Carol Woods, Hugh Quarshie and Clarke Peters.
August Wilson died in 2005 after writing ten plays in which he wanted to show the experience of black Americans in the 20th Century. The only other of these that the National has staged was Wilson's first play JITNEY with a visiting American company in 2001. This played in the Lyttelton Theatre which is now the home of Dominic Cooke's revival of MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM. Everything old is new again!
I am sure Rufus Norris wants to give the production the widest exposure possible but it feels too exposed on the expansive Lyttelton stage - a vast empty space surrounds Ultz's recording studio set and proves too much of a distraction even with the quality of the performances.
Ultz also has a narrow, train-corridor room raise up and down at the front of the stage to show the downstairs musicians' area which could surely have been included somewhere on the main stage as Bob Crowley did for the 1989 Cottesloe version. It reminded me too much of the set design for THE HAIRY APE at the Old Vic last year.
This was my only problem with Dominic Cooke's production which is hugely involving, after an admittedly slow-moving first hour, and he captures the undercurrents that swirl around an otherwise unexceptional recording session for Gertrude 'Ma' Rainey, "The Mother Of The Blues" and her touring band.
Cooke skillfully highlights the air of change that haunts the characters - Rainey's fame is slowly being eclipsed by Bessie Smith who has bigger record sales whereas 'Ma' Rainey's style of shouted blues are perceived as out of fashion. The band have to face the changing style in music and one in particular, the explosively egotistical Levee, is preening that the record company man has asked him to supply him with songs - surely that means Levee will be a star in his own right soon with his own band?
The play needs a barnstorming actress to play 'Ma' Rainey and Cooke has the good fortune to have Sharon D. Clarke who can act up a fearsome diva storm as well as belt out the title song to the balcony. Clarke has found a home at Rufus Norris' National Theatre with roles in THE AMEN CORNER and EVERYMAN and here she is in suitably imperious form.
After her manager (a suitably harassed Finbar Lynch) assures the record boss that she will be on her best behaviour, she sweeps in an hour late, says she will not sing her song with the new jazzy arrangement, she won't sing if she doesn't get her bottle of Coca-Cola and she definitely won't sing unless her stuttering nephew is allowed to perform the spoken intro to the song! Clarke is excellent in the role and shades the divaness when 'Ma' is allowed a reflective moment in the studio.
There are excellent performances too from Lucian Msamati as Toledo, the seen-it-all pianist, Giles Terera as Slow Drag the bass-player, Clint Dyer as trombone-playing Cutler and O-T Fagbenle (a name I marvel at) as the dangerously ambitious Levee. When his dreams of being a future jazz star are dashed by "the man" his violent response brings to the play to it's shocking conclusion and Fagbenle gave a kinetic, jangly performance.
There is also fine work from Lynch as Rainey's weary manager, Tunji Lucas as her stuttering nephew Sylvester and a nicely sly performance from Tamara Lawrance as Dussie Mae, Ma's latest young lover who one suspects will move from bed to bed as long as it keeps her in new dresses and spending money.
I would recommend MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM very much... and look forward to new plays such as MADONNA'S CAUSING A COMMOTION and DUSTY SPRINGFIELD'S GOIN' BACK!
And to finish off, how about the actual recording the play is based on - although the first photo on the video is actually Bessie Smith (oh and it fades out before the end) 'Ma' would NOT be happy!