This play had been thoroughly recommended to me by a number of sources and I could very quickly understand why. Much to my surprise, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is virtually bum-free! Of course, actors on stage had bottoms, and those in the audience were sitting on theirs, but this play was not as bottom-orientated as one might assume… Nonetheless, the bottom of most importance – my own – became accordingly numbed throughout the performance as the suspense of the play forced me to sit tensely on the edge of my (cheap) seat.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at the National Theatre is an absolute spectacle. Read on to know why it was such a delight to be sitting in the cheap seats.
Date of viewing: 13/02/2016
Production: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Seat: Stalls, S 29
How cheap!?: £5 (Entry Pass tickets for 16-25 year olds)
If it wasn’t confusing enough to realise how absent of bottoms Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom really was, my confusion increased when I realised that a sizeable chunk of time had passed before Ma Rainey herself made an appearance on stage. This play is not really about Ma Rainey (which is much more interesting, I promise!) but about her accompanying support band. Throughout the play, the mostly white, middle-class audience is given a serious history lesson regarding the social and cultural implications of being an African American musician in the 1920s. The lives of trombonist Cutler (played by Clint Dyer), pianist Toledo (Lucian Msamati), bassist Slow-drag (Giles Terera) and trumpeter Levee (O-T Fagbenle) are laid raw with sensitivity, darkness, humour, a whole lot of banter and so much cool-ness that Brixton’s greatest hipster would hang his head in shame.
What makes Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom so different from any other play I’ve seen recently is that it supplies its audience with some fascinating objects of people-watching. At times the plot feels slow – until you realise that this is a play about people and the lives they lead. Consequently, the chance for character exploration is outstanding and ultimately insightful. By the second act the story picks up dramatically and is constantly exciting and thrilling (for reasons I’d like to but daren’t explain!) Interesting themes including lesbian subtleties, self-esteem and speech impediment were not expanded in much detail but the play can be forgiven this because of its extensive and in-depth exploration of race, stardom, gender, innovation, religion and violence.
“…so much cool-ness that Brixton’s greatest hipster would hang his head in shame”
Unsurprisingly for a piece at the National Theatre – which I consider to be the home of excellent set and staging in London – the stage was totally inventive. Scenes in the play took place in one single building which was made really clear by the open-spaced black box set. Three scene location sets were seamlessly raised and lowered, convincingly depicting three levels of one single building. I’m sure the political implications were purposefully highlighted in that the black band members occupied the lowest floor and the white record producer, Sturdyvant, ferociously guarded his top level studio.
The most fantastic thing about Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is that all four band members play the music live. They do so with natural flair and the transitions between action and musical performance were seamless and effortless. A great attempt is made to present a degree of musical authenticity, but unavoidably the actor-musicians’ performances are unavoidably tainted with the experience of and exposure to contemporary training. Ma Rainey, played by Sharon D Clarke, appears primarily to belt out her blues favourites and the audience responds in rapturous applause. The level of musicianship amongst the actors in this play is truly special.
Individual performances were of a consistently high standard. In particular the four band members worked extremely well together and their cohesion seemed extremely natural. Although it took a while to become immersed into the flow of dialect and colloquialism, the band’s appropriately expressive acting made it easy. Clint Dyer as the band-leading trombonist Cutler was visually expressive and authoritative in his role, while Giles Terera as the bassist Slow-drag played his part with more reserve and quiet sensitivity.
I refer to the other members of the band more extensively: firstly, Toledo played by Lucian Msamati is an instantly loveable character. Lucian’s character provides an educated voice of reason within the group and he portrayed these attributes wonderfully, exuding a presence of older wisdom. His versatility as a performer was notable, playing a part which demonstrated both humour and seriousness. Throughout, Lucian’s performance was convincing – not once did he allow the audience to question his philosophy or thinking because he powerfully, but humbly, asserted his knowledgeable persona. Trumpeter Levee (O-T Fagbenle) was singled out from the start for his youthfulness and radical ideas. I wasn’t always entirely convinced by O-T’s performance – but it’s hard to decipher whether this was due to his acting ability or because Levee himself is a somewhat superficial character who is so intense and fleetingly changing. O-T gives passionate, powerful monologues which undo any previous damage and plays Levee with an irritating but necessary cockiness and erraticism.
Although some minor characters offered less memorable performances, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom presents audiences with a solid cast. Finbar Lynch who plays Ma’s manager is one of only two white actors on stage. He plays the part extremely well and is submissive to Ma’s diva-ish requests but bold enough to attempt his own (feeble) go at authority. Finbar rose to the challenge of the surroundings of a natural funny cast successfully achieving a number of laughs in and of his own right.
I believe I cannot attend a performance at the National Theatre without an accompanying favouring bias. It continually produces good quality theatre and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is certainly no exception. Whether black, white, blue or green I urge you to book a seat for your own bottom for this outstanding production – you won’t be disappointed.