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.