Review – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – National Theater

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There are three playwrights whose works I collect obsessively, aiming for “the complete set.” Shakespeare isn’t one of them, oddly enough … but Ibsen and Pinter are. The third member of this set? American author August Wilson, whose work The Piano Lesson I first saw in a student production at Rutgers University in the mid-nineties. Then when I moved to Seattle, I had the opportunity to see one after another of his works – some of them debuts – at the Seattle Repertory Theater. I saw him hanging out writing at a local coffee shop. He was an icon of American history, a playwright with a compelling vision of documenting the African American experience in the 20th century.

I was afraid I’d never get to see his plays again after moving to the UK and The Pittsburgh Cycle would be forever left with gaps. But to my joy, the Young Vic decided to stage Joe Turner’s Come and Gone in 2010, and the game was back on … but with a long, long gap between that show and the National Theater’s production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which officially opens February 2nd. I couldn’t wait after five years of no Wilson, though, and I went and got a ticket for the first night of previews. It’s nearly the earliest in the cycle and it was the second one he wrote – and its subject, the fabulous (titular) 1920s blues singer, was one who I was eager to see on stage. I mean, this was IT. I was so there.

At the start, musicians Cutler (Clint Dyer), Levee (O-T Fagbenle), Toledo (Lucian Msamati), and Slow Drag (Giles Terera) sit in the green room and warm up while waiting for Ma herself to appear. The play begins to seem like it’s another Waiting for Godot – but with four musicians waiting for eternity to pay them a visit. I stepped back, though, and realized what I was actually seeing on stage: August Wilson giving us a chance to see how African Americans act with each other when they’re not under the gaze of white Americans (in this case the fractious recording studio bosses, Sturdyvant – Stuart McQuarrie – and Irvin – Finbar Lynch). Yeah, there’s some discussions about how black and white Americans deal with each other, but what’s more important is that it’s four men talking philosophy and bullshit, being friends with each other, talking about their aspirations, being themselves in a way that’s impossible to do when under the eye of The Man. Wilson’s given us a gift, a chance to be backstage on a number of levels, and as an audience member, my job was to sit back and enjoy.

This isn’t Beckett redux, though: Ma Rainey (Sharon D Clarke) does appear, and, oh my, she is SUCH a character, a million megawatts of talent with willpower that could send a rocket to Pluto and back. I can see why Wilson wanted to immortalize her in a play. Seeing a black woman fight to get what’s hers – and pushing back and the ridiculous barriers people try to fence her in with because of her race and gender – was inspirational. I was also amazed to see her toting Dussie Mae, a female groupie (Tamara Lawrance), with her into the recording session – giving us a bit of a chance to see a bit of life on the other side of that power divide. I have no idea to what extent any of this was based on historical evidence or if Wilson just cooked it up in his head – but Wilson (and Lawrance) has created an impressively real character and dynamic, and I was … well, I couldn’t tear my eyes off of the stage. Wow.

The ending … well, you guys know we’re not living in a very nice world, right? And Wilson reminds us that some things haven’t really changed a lot in (nearly) a hundred years, and gives us food for thought. It was a good payout for my financial and time (2:35) investment, and I hope the run is as successful as the quality of the cast and the material deserve.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on January 25th, 2016. It continues through May 18th.)

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