An all-too timely revival of August Wilson's American classic, set at the dawn of the jazz age
On the off chance you’ve managed to maintain such a sunny view of humanity that you thought the snubbing of black artists at this year’s Oscars was a rare low point for America’s otherwise egalitarian entertainment industry, then do come and have your illusions shattered by the NT's superb, supernaturally well-timed revival of August Wilson’s 1984 play.
What both ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ and the 2016 Academy Awards suggest is that while the white-run commercial arts are happy to make money from black talent, when it comes to respect – you can forget about it.
That, though, is not the half of the ’20s Chicago-set ’Ma Rainey…’, a tremendous piece of writing that offers tragicomic insight into what it was – and surely still is – to be a black man trying to play fair by white man’s rules.
I use the word ‘man’ advisedly: though Sharon D Clarke offers a wonderfully obstreperous performance as the eponymous blues star, the role is essentially a supporting one in a play that would barely scrape through the Bechdel Test.
It's about men, most specifically Ma Rainey’s band: three smart, sussed older guys who’ve been playing this game for years and are wryly resigned to its unfairness (just as long as they get their money); and hotshot horn player Levee (O-T Fagbenle), a gifted young man desperate for stardom, desperate for praise, desperate to drag Ma’s sound into the jazz age, torn between volcanic anger at the white establishment and an ambition that tells him ingratiating himself is the only way to success.
Though the play is hardly without incident, what it mostly adds up to is four guys shooting the shit, trying to make the best of an impossible situation. It’s angry, but mostly it’s warm and funny and slips by like a charm thanks to Dominic Cooke’s crisp production and superlative performances from its leads, especially Fagbenle’s ticking time-bomb Levee and Lucian Msamati as book-smart father of the band Toledo.
But we’re never allowed to forget – because they’re never allowed to forget – the unfairness of the industry, and for all the good-natured joshing, it’s not hard to see tragedy slowly rearing its head. At the violent denouement Wilson doesn’t make excuses, just states a fact: put people under unbearable pressure, and they will crack.
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Beautiful, heartbreaking, joyous as well as devastating, just like the blues. Outstanding performances from all the cast of a play that strikes right to the core. August Wilson is on par with Tennessee Williams, perhaps even better. Utterly phenomenal. (The person below who thought this was a musical and found it too long is an idiot. This is brilliant.)