“That’s the thing with coloured folks – they always wanna have a good time”. I’m paraphrasing, but in this one line Lucian Msamati’s Toledo perfectly sums up this five-star production. In addition to many other things, it is certainly what I would refer to as a ‘good night out’ for any theatregoer, seasoned or completely fresh to the scene.
Not much occurs plot-wise: Madame Rainey is the renowned 1920s singer, labelled by her fans as the ‘Mother of the Blues’, who arrives late to record a few new songs in the studio, which her manager Irvin hopes will become big hits. She arrives with her younger lover Dussie and nephew Sylvester, to whom she has promised a voice intro on her ‘Black Bottom’ track. The only problem is that Sylvester has a stutter that won’t quit, and before long Ma’s stubbornness to include her nephew on the record is met with the tail end of studio manager Sturdyvant’s patience.
Director Dominic Cooke and designer Ultz utilise the depth of the Lyttelton to outstanding effect. There is a constant sense of spectacle and filmic drama created by the entrances of band members coming in from the cold in their winter coats bearing instruments, and Ma and co. erupting onto the stage for the first time in tumultuous fashion. In the audience’s peripheral eyeline are large lighting rigs that hang like vines on the high-reaching walls of the set, always half-lit as Ma sits, stands and sings, framed as the central showstopper on a stage that is mostly bare save the musicians, instruments and African Americans jamming on top of it.
From here, Cooke and Ultz take us down into the tiny rehearsal room, down into the heart of this play, where relationships, religion and racism collide in discussions between the four members of Ma Rainey’s band. Cooke’s skill is clear in the way he manages the dynamics in these scenes. He allows the men’s arguments to pivot on the horizontal space created between the actors themselves, who often have to lob insults across pianos and through doorways in order to make their point heard. At the same time, August Wilson’s measure as a playwright probably comes down to the effectiveness of these scenes. The conflict and camaraderie between the four men is explored solely through dialogue, stories and interactions that, for a lesser writer, would come off as self-indulgent or overwritten. But in the same way as with McDonagh or even Tarantino, one can quite easily sit and listen to the words of Wilson for hours on end – the back and forth is utterly engaging and the tautologies are delightfully crafted and delivered by four actors at the top of their game.
I remember seeing Msamati at the Royal Court five years ago in another Cooke triumph, Clybourne Park, and having the same unique feeling of real joy in a theatre that comes very rarely but is significant enough to completely rejuvenate all your hopes in the medium once more. It is probably futile to try to single out actors for individual praise in a company of such all-round quality, but Msamati really does possess an extraordinary ability to ride the waves and troughs of his character effortlessly – and at the same time to connect to the experience of the audience in the room. With just one look he can have everyone in incredulous laughter; alternately, as we see in what is probably the saddest scene of the entire play, as eccentric go-getter and notorious player Levee he finally has his bubble burst after Sturdyvant reneges on his promise of studio recording-time. The image of Msamati and his fellow musicians on the other side of the room, looking completely crestfallen for a man they have spent the last few hours deriding, is another example of his ability to say so much with so little. The weakest part of the night is the unexpectedly melodramatic ending that comes out of nowhere, and which is made all the more glaring by the unerring strength of the rest of the play in comparison. Yet even here the cast do their best to paper over the play’s only real crack.
After all the embarrassment of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, one can feel a definite sense of national pride currently: while Adrian Lester is lighting up the West End in his revival of Red Velvet at the Garrick, A Raisin in the Sun plays at the Sheffield Crucible, while Akram Khan’s Mahabharata retelling, Until the Lions, finished at the Roundhouse last week. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is just another reminder that diversity is well and truly live and kicking on the British stage today.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is playing Lyttelton Theatre at the National Theatre until 18 May. For more information and tickets, see the National Theatre website. Photo: Johan Persson.