real-life blues singer Ma Rainey (Sharon D Clarke) isn't going to let that stop her doing exactly what she wants: As the highest-earning artist on Sturdyvant's (Stuart McQuarrie) record label, she can get away with diva behaviour like flaunting her young girlfriend Dussie Mae (Tamara Lawrance,) refusing to sing until she's had her three bottles of Coke brought to her, and demanding the spoken-word intro to the titular song be performed by her nephew Sylvester (Tunji Lucas) - despite his stutter.
Of course she also knows that a star never arrives on time so as we wait for Ma to
make her big entrance we have time to meet her backing band, in the small basement
room they've been given to rehearse in.
Led by trombonist Cutler (Clint Dyer,) who tries to keep the quartet professional,
he regularly clashes with the vain, fiery trumpeter Levee (O-T Fagbenle,) while
double-bass player Slow Drag (Giles Terera) and pianist Toledo (Lucian Msamati) get
caught in their crossfire. Although at its heart it looks at serious issues, with
most of the characters having experienced some serious abuse from white people at
some point or other, these stories are used as occasional sharp shocks in what is
for the most part a very funny play - the dark moments all the more effective for
Wilson gets a lot of comedy out of the abrasive back-and-forth between the men, and
Cooke's production is, despite its length, slick and full of energy. Underneath the
quips, the underlying theme is of black people needing to make sure they seize the
respect they're denied, with Toledo lecturing the others on how he believes all
black men need to stand together for their rights rather than dig at each other.
Meanwhile Ma Rainey knows she's only of interest to white people because she makes
them money, but her diva behaviour just because she can get away with it is her own
Ultz continues the recent trend of suspending parts of sets from a bare Lyttelton
stage with a design that sees the white bosses, Sturdyvant and manager Irvin (Finbar
Lynch,) hanging above the studio in a recording booth with a "Do Not Enter" sign,
and Ma Rainey with her entourage lording it in the studio itself. But the heart of
the play is in the basement, with the musicians in their narrow room that rises up
out of the front of the stage. Given the subject matter it's no surprise there's
also a few musical numbers from Clarke as well as one from Terera, all helping to
add to an evening that perfectly mixes the entertaining with the thought-provoking.
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom by August Wilson is booking in repertory until the 18th of
May at the National Theatre's Lyttelton.
Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes including interval.