The history of race relations in America is complex and fascinating, with the ongoing struggle for equality frequently explored in films, TV and novels. On the stage, the access point for examining these issues has been music, and several major productions have used the development of jazz, blues and Mowtown sounds as a route to understanding the African American experience. From the hit musical Hairspray which tackles segregation in 60s Baltimore through inter-racial dancing, Memphis the recent West End and Broadway smash about a DJ who loves the blues because of his club singer girlfriend also set in the 60s, to Mowtown the Musical which recently opened in London, it is the music that helps to break down racial divides.
Into this space comes the National Theatre revival of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, August Wilson’s 1989 play set during one afternoon in a recording studio as a blues band await the arrival of their boss, the infamous, Ma Rainey. Instead of rehearsing, the men talk about their lives, their dreams and the difficulties they experience as black musicians having to interact with their white manager and studio boss. All four men, distinguished by age and professional experience, end up in conflict at various times, sometimes over small matters like how many sandwiches they can have or which version of a song to play, while at others they argue fiercely over the human condition and the nature of suffering. Once Ma arrives the dynamic shifts as a powerful woman takes control, and making music becomes only a temporary bandage for their troubles.
This play at its heart is about masculinity but there are two types of masculinity colliding, one which looks back to the past, to deference, respect and dignity represented by piano player Toldeo (Lucian Msamati); the other is the forward facing Levee (O-T Fagbbenle) who is pushing for change, arrogant, certain of himself and refusing to believe that a white man can ever stop him achieving his dream of having his own band. As the story unfolds you learn what made these men who they are, each shaped by an early experience of oppression that sets them onto their particular path.
Levee antagonises everyone, not least band leader Cutler (Clint Dyer) who bickers intermittently with him throughout about everything from songs to religion, but what this does is show you a world in flux, it is 1929 and most of these men are scared of that change, and of the world that Levee represents. What it also does is introduce you to a familiar world of male interaction, where competition and one-upmanship are par for the course, each wanting the last word and to be proved right. Ultimately it sets you up for an ending that is entirely unexpected, but one that you actually realise was completely inevitable.
The character of Ma is a shadow for much of the production, hanging over everything in absentia. They are at the studio at the time she says to record songs she wants, in the way she wants them, but takes some considerable time to actually arrive. When she does she is a diva and everyone cow-tows to her buying her Coca-Cola before she’ll sing, allowing her stuttering nephew to do a song intro and turning up the heat to stop her getting cold. Sharon D Clarke is an awesome stage presence, dismissing those around her and completely certain she’ll get what she wants. She fills the enormous Lyttelton Stage with a ferocious presence and when the tunes eventually arrive, they are glorious – suggesting, in our celebrity-obsessed world, that you can forgive any behaviour for that kind of talent. This is who Levee wants to be.
But, Dominic Cooke’s layered production lets us see the big bad world beyond the Studio where actually Ma’s reach is limited. Here among these people she may be a superstar but she is only allowed to perform at select white functions and even a local policeman sees the colour of her skin before her fame, refusing to accept her side of the story over an alleged assault which delayed her arrival at the Studio. It’s only when her white manager vouchers for her and pays-off the cop that she is free. So however famous and powerful she thinks she is, the play shows she still needs help to maintain her status. What is so brilliant about Clarke’s performance is that she has no idea how dependent she is on anyone else, which only adds to the meaning for the audience. But she’s not a monster in any way and here again it is the music that allows us to see more of her heart when she says that singing the blues isn’t about making herself happy, it’s a necessity to get through the day and make sense of everything.
As ever with the National the designers, Ultz, have outdone themselves with in-effect a three storey construction that implies the nature of status in this play. Initially it’s a bare studio floor, just a microphone and some chairs so you can see all the rigging and lighting backstage in what looks like an enormous empty warehouse. In the centre is a small cabin recording booth up a winding staircase. The third level is downstairs from the studio floor, a rehearsal room which rises up onto the stage like a giant oblong box which is where most of the musician interaction takes place – they are the lowest in this food-chain. Ma dominates the studio area but only the white manager and studio boss are allowed into the cabin where they sit above everyone else, barring entry with a ‘No Admittance’ sign – telling you everything you need to know about this society.
‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ is a song that eventually we get to hear, one of four the band is set to perform, and the one that causes such anxiety among the band. Perhaps what is so astonishing about this play is that the anxiety it speaks of is not entirely confined to race, but to the nature of people in general. There is no obvious good and bad, no heroes and villains just a group of people trying to survive and often doing the most damage to the very people they should be trying to help. The National’s production couldn’t be more timely with diversity rows overshadowing this year’s Oscars and already rearing its head in the American Presidential campaign. But this play is saying that political respect is only half the battle and respect for individuals and their histories is the key, brought together by wonderful music.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is at the National Theatre until 18 May. Tickets start at £15 and the production is included in the National’s Friday Rush scheme where tickets are sold for £20 from 1pm.