Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Theatre, Drama
4 out of 5 stars
4 out of 5 stars
(5user reviews)
 (© Johan Persson)
© Johan PerssonTUNJI LUCAS (Sylvester) and SHARON D. CLARKE (Ma Rainey)
 (© Johan Persson)
© Johan PerssonO-T FAGBENLE (Levee) and GILES TERERA (Slow Drag)
 (© Johan Persson)
© Johan PerssonFINBAR LYNCH (Irvin), SHARON D. CLARKE (Ma Rainey), TUNJI LUCAS (Sylvester), TAMARA LAWRANCE (Dussie Mae)
 (© Johan Persson)
© Johan PerssonO-T FAGBENLE (Levee) and LUCIAN MSAMATI (Toledo)
 (© Johan Persson)
© Johan PerssonSHARON D. CLARKE (Ma Rainey) and FINBAR LYNCH (Irvin)
 (© Johan Persson)
© Johan PerssonO-T FAGBENLE (Levee), CLINT DYER (Cutler), SHARON D. CLARKE (Ma Rainey), FINBAR LYNCH (Irvin)
 (© Johan Persson)
© Johan PerssonLUCIAN MSAMATI (Toledo), SHARON D. CLARKE (Ma Rainey), CLINT DYER (Cutler)
 (© Johan Persson)
© Johan PerssonGILES TERERA (Slow Drag), CLINT DYER (Cutler), LUCIAN MSAMATI (Toledo)
 (© Johan Persson)
© Johan Persson
 (© Johan Persson)
© Johan PerssonSTUART McQUARRIE (Sturdyvant) and O-T FAGBENLE (Levee)

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.

By: Andrzej Lukowski


Average User Rating

4.4 / 5

Rating Breakdown

  • 5 star:3
  • 4 star:1
  • 3 star:1
  • 2 star:0
  • 1 star:0
1 person listening
1 of 1 found helpful

I have to agree with the previous reviewer that Wilson is one of the best American playwrights. This play was excellent, it had everything you could expect from tension to humour. A superb cast, great direction and an excellent stage. Please go see it.


Phenomenal piece of theatre, one of the best plays I've seen at the NT.  Apart from the universally excellent performances, I particularly liked the staging with much of the play taking place in the tiny 'basement' which keeps the tension high with the tone shifting fluidly throughout - it's far funnier than I expected too, with great chemistry between the band.  The songs, although infrequent, are excellent - don't go expecting a musical but a piece of vital theatre and you'll be happy.


The performances in this play are superb. In many ways it feels so low key yet has some really powerful messages and really does overall pack a punch. I remain in two minds about it though as despite feeling it was important I wasn't particularly moved - like i was for example by The Scottsborough Boys. I think the main issue I have is that there isn't much of a narrative arc. The play is basically a vehicle for the various characters to reveal their individual stories of oppression and prejudice and to display the cumulative effects of it. Having the characters as a peripatetic members of a band gives that credibility but means, for me, there is a degree of artificiality.

The music and the singing are amazing and provide a degree of joy and humour that lifts the mood a little. 

I really wanted to love this play and write a 5 star review but didn't come out feeling like I had seen a five star experience.

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.)


Just saw this in previews last week and did enjoy the show but would warn anyone that might think this is a musical to see Motown instead as this is a play with the odd bit of music thrown in. Most of the action takes place around the her Musician's and not Ma Rainey and does feel like it could have been edited down in some places (play is 2 hours 45 mins with a short internal).