-->
Music

August Wilson's 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom' Gets a Vibrant National Theatre Revival

Sharon D Clarke as Ma Rainey

Charismatic performances from O-T Fagbenle and Sharon D Clarke ignite Dominic Cooke’s major revival of August Wilson’s play at the National Theatre.


Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

City: London
Venue: National Theatre
Date: 2016-02-02

Debate about diversity in Hollywood may be generating the most discussion these days, but on London stages the picture is looking a little bit rosier at the moment: superficially, at least. Adrian Lester has just opened in the West End in Red Velvet, Lolita Chakrabati’s play about the pioneering black actor Ira Aldridge, while, at the Orange Tree, Chris Urch’s The Rolling Stone, about gay oppression in Uganda, is garnering much acclaim. A production of Lorraine Hansberry’s seldom-seen final play Les Blancs opens at the National Theatre next month. In the meantime, the National has revived August Wilson’s breakthrough play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, in a major production directed by Dominic Cooke in the Lyttelton auditorium.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom opened in New York in 1984, becoming, as John Lahr soberly notes in the National Theatre programme, the first African-American play to succeed on Broadway since Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun in 1959. (Part of Wilson’s “Century Cycle”, the play was also produced at the National in 1989.) The drama unfolds over one day in December 1927, when the Blues legend Gertrude “Ma” Rainey pitched up at a Chicago recording studio to cut a disc with her band.

Through the conflicts and power struggles that emerge in that studio -- between Ma and her white manager Irvin, the studio owner Sturdyvant and between her and the other musicians, notably the renegade horn player Levee who’s developed his own version of Ma’s signature tune -- Wilson skilfully constructs a portrait of early 20th century African-American experience as poised between various oppositions: North and South, past and future, country and metropolis, and old and newly emerging musical forms.

Shifting between the basement rehearsal space and the studio (a movement rendered fluently here in Ultz’s terrific design), Cooke’s production allows the play’s themes to emerge clearly and vibrantly, and the cast seizes the opportunity to give robust yet richly detailed performances. As Levee, O-T Fagbenle contributes the production's star turn: the charismatic Fagbenle captures every nuance of Levee's arrogance and vulnerability. His delivery of a speech in which levee reveals a traumatic childhood incident brings the character sharply into focus and Act One to a shudderingly powerful close.

Fagbenle is well supported by Clint Dyer as the trombonist Cutler, by Giles Terera as the bassist Slow Drag and, especially, by the wonderful Lucian Msamati as the slightly pompous pianist Toledo, who believes that Blacks in America are too focused on “having a good time” when they’d be better occupied thinking seriously about their futures.

It’s not quite a great play, though. Wilson is a sharp and perceptive writer and his sure feel for African-American speech rhythms gives the drama a distinctive charge. He has a charitable, even-handed attitude to the characters, too: witness the way in which Toledo’s highfalutin' theorising is given both its silly and its insightful side. Presenting a variety of perspectives, the play is shrewd in its depiction of the struggle for artistic and economic self-determination in the face of racism and shifting marketplace demands.

However, Wilson can be prone to excessive, over-insistent verbiage, and certain moments of story-telling here slide into tedium, despite the dynamism of the actors’ delivery. More problematic still is the way in which the play makes Ma herself a secondary character in the piece. Sharon D Clarke has absolute ease and sublime authority in the role; she shows us the root of Ma’s demanding, Diva behaviour and creates a thoroughly convincing, iconic presence. There’s a wonderful little moment in which she reaches out in sympathy to her nephew Sylvester (excellent Tunji Lucas), a stutterer whom she’s roped in to provide the spoken word intro on the new record.

Yet Wilson’s true passion, one feels, is for the interaction of the male characters, meaning that Ma is ultimately somewhat sidelined. Also awkward is the way in which the play makes Ma and Levee not only professional but also erotic rivals for the affections of Dussie Mae (a weakly drawn role that Tamara Lawrance does well to invest with some spirit here), and there’s something a little unconvincing about the melodramatic turn that the piece takes in its final moments, too.

Cooke and his company can’t entirely mitigate some of these issues. Still, with its vivid, generous performances, its emotional intelligence and its vigorous spirit, it’s hard to imagine seeing Wilson’s play served better than it is in this highly enjoyable production.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is booking at the National Theatre until 18 May 2016.

7
Music

The Best Indie Rock of 2017

Photo courtesy of Matador Records

The indie rock genre is wide and unwieldy, but the musicians selected here share an awareness of one's place on the cultural-historical timeline.

Indie rock may be one of the most fluid and intangible terms currently imposed upon musicians. It holds no real indication of what the music will sound like and many of the artists aren't even independent. But more than a sonic indicator, indie rock represents a spirit. It's a spirit found where folk songsters and punk rockers come together to dialogue about what they're fed up with in mainstream culture. In so doing they uplift each other and celebrate each other's unique qualities.

With that in mind, our list of 2017's best indie rock albums ranges from melancholy to upbeat, defiant to uplifting, serious to seriously goofy. As always, it's hard to pick the best ten albums that represent the year, especially in such a broad category. Artists like King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard had a heck of a year, putting out four albums. Although they might fit nicer in progressive rock than here. Artists like Father John Misty don't quite fit the indie rock mold in our estimation. Foxygen, Mackenzie Keefe, Broken Social Scene, Sorority Noise, Sheer Mag... this list of excellent bands that had worthy cuts this year goes on. But ultimately, here are the ten we deemed most worthy of recognition in 2017.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less
Music

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Keep reading... Show less

It's ironic that by injecting a shot of cynicism into this glorified soap opera, Johnson provides the most satisfying explanation yet for the significance of The Force.

Despite J.J. Abrams successfully resuscitating the Star Wars franchise with 2015's Star Wars: The Force Awakens, many fans were still left yearning for something new. It was comforting to see old familiar faces from a galaxy far, far away, but casual fans were unlikely to tolerate another greatest hits collection from a franchise already plagued by compositional overlap (to put it kindly).

Keep reading... Show less
7

Yeah Yeah Yeahs played a few US shows to support the expanded reissue of their debut Fever to Tell.

Although they played a gig last year for an after-party for a Mick Rock doc, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs hadn't played a proper NYC show in four years before their Kings Theatre gig on November 7th, 2017. It was the last of only a handful of gigs, and the only one on the East coast.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image