Set in a recording studio in Chicago in 1927, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom makes a microcosm out of the music industry. August Wilson shows us a three-tiered system – beautifully realised in Ultz’s spare design – of white studio execs, a great blues star and her black session musicians. Such is America – today, as much as back then. As they say, whosoever pays the piper, calls the tune.
Upstairs, almost hermetically sealed in their control booth, a ‘No Admittance’ sign across the staircase, Ma’s manager Irvin (Finbar Lynch) and studio boss Sturdyvant (Stuart McQuarrie) sit quietly totting through paperwork. Downstairs, on the sound floor Ma Rainey rules the roost, swanning in with her colourful entourage and issuing divaish demands: a coke before she sings, a quick turnaround or she leaves. Sharon D. Clarke, in the darkest emerald dress, folds her arms, stares outwards and stands her ground. When she finally sings, unleashing a velvet voice that can both burr and squeak, you understand exactly why she gets her way.
The rest of the band are mostly below deck, in a cramped, windowless rehearsal room. They’re the life of the play, as they jam, joke and drink while waiting to record. Beneath the joshing, however, are profound disagreements: politics, ambitions and egos. Young trumpeter Levee (O-T Fagbenle) – as shrill as his instrument – wants stardom for himself, and so clashes with his bandmates; obsequious trombonist Cutler (Clint Dyer) and old-time pianist Toledo (Lucian Msamati) in particular. Joined by Giles Terera on double bass, they make a whip-sharp ensemble, and Dominic Cooke‘s production – so quick, so tart and so very funny – draws out the deeper implications of their back and forth beautifully.
Wilson stages an eloquent debate, not just on cultural appropriation, but art’s relationship to the marketplace too. Ma Rainey’s authentic black sound – Wilson called the blues "the best literature that blacks have" – is challenged by Levee’s jazz style, more in line with white mainstream tastes. Irvin and Sturdyvant are musical parasites. "Want take my voice and trap it in them fancy boxes," says Ma. She could live off her live gigs. Recording serves the studio.
Downstairs, that debate gets further fleshed out – and grows into wider, deeper questions of cultural assimilation: African Americans’ relationship to white America. Levee pushes for success at all costs, grovelling if necessary; Cutler does what he’s told, and Toledo remembers their roots. Each is individually brilliant: Fagbenle like white-heat; Dyer hectoring but, when it really counts, a pushover; Msamati, placid, sage but still playful – secure in his worn old shoes.
Because the play’s an expression of history too; the third, chronologically, in Wilson’s Century Cycle. These might be successful black men, a generation born free, now suited, booted and earning $25 a day, yet they’re still scarred by the past – literally so in Levee’s case, stabbed, as a child, fighting off a mob that gang-raped his mother. He saw his father hanged and set alight. Said with a shrug, the lynching seems so commonplace. Beneath Levee’s drive and smoothness, there’s trauma. He’s holed below the waterline. You don’t see the end coming, but, in hindsight, it’s inevitable – the mark of genius plotting.
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom runs at the Lyttelton Theatre at the National until 18 May