Reviewed: A Flawless Revival Of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom at National Theatre ★★★★★

Rachel Stoplar
By Rachel Stoplar Last edited 99 months ago

Last Updated 06 February 2016

Reviewed: A Flawless Revival Of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom Ma Rainey's Black Bottom at National Theatre 5
The full cast, photo by Johan Persson courtesy of the National Theatre.

Dominic Cooke's production of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom at the National Theatre has the quality of a piece of jazz. Though it may have Ma Rainey's name in the title, this is truly an ensemble piece, with pitch-perfect to-and-fro dialogue between headstrong Ma and her sycophantic white manager Irvin, between Irvin and irate producer Sturdyvant, between swaggering horn-player Levee and sanctimonious piano-player Toledo.

We're in a claustrophobic studio in 1920s Chicago and tensions are rife. Ma 'Mother of the Blues' Rainey is battling with Irvin and Sturdyvant over everything from a bottle of Coke to the music they are there to record. Sharon D Clarke's titular performance is less diva-ish histrionics, more powerful restraint: a regular bass line with occasional fortissimo, over which Irvin's attempts at mediation and Sturdyvant's bursts of frustration are a high-pitched, strangulated melody.

Ma stands regally centre stage while the white producers dangle aloft in a sealed-off metal box in Ultz's highly symbolic set design. Meanwhile, the band paces back and forth in a narrow rehearsal room that rises up at the front of the stage — woefully insufficient space for four such clashing personalities. Exchanges between Lucian Msamati's calm Toledo on the far left and O-T Fagbenle's easily wound-up Levee to the right have us bobbing our heads side-to-side as if watching a tennis match.

The rehearsal room, photo by Johan Persson courtesy of the National Theatre.

But their crescendoing conflicts, from bickering arguments to violent clashes, have much more at stake than a Wimbledon final. Though we're in Chicago, it's in this space that the South comes alive through a series of solos: dramatic monologues by each of the band members that take us back to their recent history, from bar brawls to vicious lynchings. It's not individual pride or honour that they're fighting over — it's a massive, impossible choice African-Americans faced in the early 20th century, between working with the system and working against it.

The strength of Cooke's production is how he draws out the many conflicts of Wilson's drama by every means possible. There's the spatial contrast between white managers and black musicians on the vertical line, but also between those black musicians with hugely different opinions on the horizontal line. There's the audible contrast between Ma's trad jazz and Levee's syncopated sound, but also between the black characters' drawn-out Southern accents and the white ones' tight Chicago voices. There are moments of perfect comic timing, but also of deep, visceral tragedy. This is a flawlessly executed revival of one of America's greatest plays.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is on at the National Theatre until 18 May 2016. Londonist saw this production on a complimentary ticket.