An interesting programming choice for the National Theatre, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a 1982 play by August Wilson, whose work Fences was in the West End a couple of years ago. The African-American playwright wrote a cycle of plays exploring the black experience in the USA during the twentieth century: this one, set in the 1920s, is the only one not set in Pittsburgh.
Ma Rainey was a blues singer hugely famous in her time and breaking new ground. In this play, set in Chicago, white record executives are waiting for her arrival so she can record some tracks. The description of the play suggests that it is chiefly about her battle to take control of her own music from her bosses, and on one level this is true. She has power in some respects and more than most black women, but she is still faced with racism: she’s late to the recording because can’t get a taxi on the way to the studio. Little wonder that she acts like a diva: it’s the only way she can get taken seriously. However, the play’s real focus is on the four black musicians employed to play the music. Waiting for Ma Rainey to arrive, they talk, make jokes, bicker – rich and illuminating, as August Wilson showed black people interacting without the interference and presence of white people in the institutionally racist 1920s.
Sharon D Clarke is magnificent as Ma Rainey, confident and powerful, while Lucian Msmati and O. T. Fagbenie are incredibly strong as intellectual pianist Toledo and hot-headed trombonist Levee. The set is cleverly designed, with the white executives in a box high up and the musicians relegated to a basement reflecting the racial divisions of the period. The play’s shocking ending was surprising to me, yet with hindsight the previous events were always leading up to it. An unforgettable and hugely important evening.