Measure for Measure, Act 4, Scene 1
That theatre is often supposed to make you uncomfortable is a received view. Yet it feels to me like playwrights and directors increasingly use extreme violence, swearing and sex as almost shortcuts to achieving this effect on their audience. Perhaps this is partly a result of my seeing student theatrics increasingly coming with ‘trigger warnings’ (I saw a brilliantly-acted, but gruesomely graphic production of Philip Ridley’s Mercury Fur a few weeks ago), but one need only think of the furore surrounding the National Theatre’s Cleansed (Sarah Kane) or Jamie Lloyd’s visceral productions of Macbeth or Richard III to see this trend of explicit gore.
Dominic Cooke’s revival of August Wilson’s play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at the National Theatre does indeed include violence, sex, and swearing; but what makes the production so brilliant, and actually so important to see, is that this isn’t what made me squirm in my seat. Rather, it is the powerful rendering of black African-American life in the 1920s that makes a white, middle-class, privileged viewer like myself uneasy.
Those more experienced theatre viewers than myself will have to bear with here; I’d never seen an August Wilson play before, or, to my shame, even heard of the playwright before this. In fact, I am embarrassingly ill-educated about BME playwrights in general, something I’ll definitely be making an effort to rectify.
For those of you, like me, who also know little about the play, here’s a quick summary: in a Chicago recording studio in 1927, four band members rehearse and talk (and argue!) whilst waiting for the ‘Mother of Blues’, Ma Rainey to arrive. The play takes place just before, and during this recording session, as we are introduced not only to Ma herself, or rather Madam, as the diva likes to be known, but also these four musicians; Cutler, the leader; Toledo, the intellectual of the group; Slow Drag, the quieter, superstitious bass player; and Levee, the loud, wildly unstable trumpet player, desperate to become a big jazz star in his own right.
It was O.T. Fagbenle in this latter role who was really the star of the production, every moment a performance, whether he was checking himself out in the locker mirrors, or stammering and stuttering over his lines, or dancing around the rather cramped area of the stage to which the musicians were confined for a large amount of the action.
I thought this staging worked pretty well; with the recording studio taking over the whole of the Lyttelton stage, the white characters of the managers and recording executives symbolically placed ‘above’ in the sound booth, and the band’s thin slice of a rehearsal room, where most of the action takes place, rising out of the floor at the front of the stage. Its thinness provided an important sense of claustrophobia, as the drama heightened throughout the course of the show.
A lot of this drama, and particularly the ‘back-story sections’ which – to sound old-fartish – I have grown to loathe in modern drama, only works so well because of the superb acting from the cast. With ‘back-story sections’ I mean those moments when a character suddenly launches into a long epistle about their past, explaining their entire character and motives for action in one dramatic monologue; it feels to me like these are just psychiatrist couch outpourings which are an easy way for a playwright to get out of having to tell a character’s mind through subtler mannerisms and oddly placed words. There were quite a few of these long speeches in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and yet the actors, particularly Fagbenle and the excellent Lucian Msmati as Toledo, managed to make them seem spontaneous enough that they didn’t jar too much in the course of the action. Giles Terera (Slow Drag) and Clint Dyer (Cutler), meanwhile, managed to create a strong sense of the bond between their two characters, without so much of the storytelling. I was especially impressed by the musicianship of all four actors; although there is actually less music than you would think from a play set in a recording studio.
Luckily, we do get to hear some of Sharon D Clarke’s smooth vocals as Ma Rainey. Clarke inhabits this central role totally, portraying both the extreme diva and her reasons for being so demanding. Finbar Lynch as Irvin, Ma’s manager who maintains constantly that he can “sort it”, was excellently efficacious, and I also liked Tunji Lucas as the shy, stuttering Sylvester, Ma Rainey’s nephew.
In fact, the only real problem I had with the performance I went to see was the audience. Perhaps it was a result of being at a weekday matinee, but it felt as though the largely white, elderly audience was self-congratulatory. The setting of the play in both the past, and another country, seemed to allow them to distance themselves from any blame, with even some outright laughter being heard during the final, most distressing climax. There was also laughter during Slyvester’s stuttering: “Oh, don’t make him do it” was heard through titters. I’m aware that this may sound typically-critic-like, as if no one quite understands the play as well as I do. Yet the outright laughter just really irritated me, when such important issues – which are still relevant – were being raised.
The National Theatre have combined with playwright Kwame Kwei-Amah to create the Black Plays Archive, a website providing information and digital resources addressing the contribution of African, Caribbean and black British playwrights to British theatre. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is an excellent revival, worth seeing for the acting alone, but made more important because of its message. My hope is that its success will not only impact the thoughts of those seeing it, but also encourage Rufus Norris and his team to put on more BME works in the future – particularly contemporary British ones, so that it is not quite so easy for an audience to distance themselves from guilt by means of accent or dress.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at the National Theatre: 4.5/5 stars