Review: MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM at the National Theatre, Lyttelton

From when it was very first announced, the idea of Sharon D Clarke taking on the iconic role of Ma Rainey in the National Theatre's acclaimed revival of August Wilson's 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom' excited me. I most recently saw her stellar performance in Ghost at the Piccadilly Theatre and she was the one actress who stood out to me in that show (I actually have a really funny 13-year-old-Shaun stage door story about that, so if you ever get the chance, ask me about it!)

Not only is Clarke's performance stellar in this revival though, but every actor in this ensemble cast pulls their weight in a show that has a very serious subject matter. Set in 1920s Chicago, the play comes from August Wilson's iconic Pittsburgh Cycle of plays that document African American life in the 20th century (this play is the only in the series of ten that isn't set in Pittsburgh). The story follows real life "Mother of the Blues" Ma Rainey on a day in the recording studio where she is recording her iconic song "Black Bottom". Throughout the day, the band discuss their issues in their dressing room as well as their history as African American people while Ma Rainey shows off her "diva side" upstairs in the recording booth.

Ma Rainey's "diva outbursts" aren't all fun and games though. In fact, her outbursts are almost entirely valid when you take a look at how the white men who run the recording studio treat Ma and her entirely black band and crew; this play isn't only about explaining hardships, but it's about demonstrating them as well. It's an interesting piece that manages to beautifully blend the idea of a biographical and a historical play well; it's not boring to watch at all and is remarkably gripping for a show that runs entirely in real time. When characters like O-T Fagbenle's Levee tell their remarkable back stories, it's gripping to hear and there's something really fascinating about listening to a story inside a story: considering you go to the theatre to see a person bring a story to life, it's so weird yet beautiful to have that person tell you yet another story and you have to imagine it for yourself.

Sharon D Clarke is phenomenal throughout and her performance as the iconic Ma Rainey is duly noted. While the role is perhaps a little bit less involved than previous roles, her portrayal is still thoroughly enjoyable to watch and her embodiment of this Roaring 20s Blues icon is fantastic fun. O-T Fagbenle's touching performance as Levee is the real showstopper though. From when he enters as a loopy and irritatable young man at the start of the show to his dramatic and gutwrenching closing at the end of the show, Fagbenle takes on the role perfectly and brings the character's complexity and horror to life with perfection. Clint Dyer also makes a notably fun and likeable Cutler, while Lucian Msamati provides the show's necessary paternal figure with class.

This new production of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom may not be the most technically complex show the National has ever put on, but it's by all accounts necessary. In a time where the Arts are proving to be more and more discriminatory towards people of colour, it's vital that we see more stores like this one being retold. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom makes it very clear when looking at how far we have and haven't come in the past century and not only is it fascinating to see, but it's also a good night at the theatre along the way. Dominic Cooke has directed an excellent revival of eye-opening theatre that, while not the best play ever written, is still a wonderfully educational and enjoyable piece regardless.

1 comment

  1. This show sounds fantastic and I kept meaning to book but couldn't find the time to see it. Glad to hear it was enjoyable!