Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
by August Wilson
The Day The Music Died
The Day The Music Died
Coming home from Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, directed by Dominic Cooke, TLT could have sworn the exhaust of her normally sober little hatchback emitted a series of sobs. But she couldn't ask due to the - ahem - lump in her own throat.
Written in 1982 by Frederick August Kittel Jr, otherwise known as August Wilson, the play follows a band of Chicago session musicians on a day fifty five years earlier when the eponymous Gertrude "Ma" Rainey (Sharon D Clarke), the Queen Bee of the blues, is about to record a new album of songs.
But it's the drones who are at the centre of the action relegated to a basement rehearsal room. Meanwhile, in Ultz's telling set design the control room is perched on high with white studio boss Mel Sturdyvant (Stuart McQuarrie), allowing only Ma's white management Irvin (Finbar Lynch) to climb the stairs from the studio.
In the words of the play, the musicians are the "nuts in the stew" pulled in to facilitate the session. The bookish Toledo (Lucien Msamati), given to lecturing, neatly playing the piano. Cutler (Clint Dyer) the trombonist and band leader "One, two, you know what to do ..." aware where his bread is buttered.Slow Drag (Giles Terera) on the bass wanting an uncomplicated life. And finally Levee (O-T Fagbenle) the trumpet player, young, vain, quivering with brashness and undisciplined talent, eager to form his own band.
Seemingly a riff on the music industry and the history of black migration to northern cities from the rural south, the play reaches much further and picks at the scab on the bent knee of collaborative money-driven creativity with intricate precision.
The musicians tell their competing histories, both asserting their right to exist and as a kind of confessional. With the lightest of touches, the playwright evokes the patterns of nepotism and corruption replicated at every level before they blend into anonymity for the recording of the star turn.
This isn't an open ended play of rights and wrongs though, far from it. Ma Rainey sashays in late after a fracas with the police, permitting (yes, that is the correct word in the all-too-human power play of this saga) her manager to bribe the officers.
She battles for control of how she sings her own songs bringing her into conflict with Levee who, having produced modern up-tempo arrangments of Ma Rainey's songs, believes he has formed an alliance with the white boss.
How the best-laid plans go wrong is for the audience to discover and the hurt radiates long after the trap finally snaps shut.This has been a long playing piece since its first performance in 1984 for a reason and TLT gives a green light for this pitch perfect production.