August Wilson, who has a Broadway theatre named in his honour, is one of the great American playwrights. According to The New Yorker’s John Lahr, the first African-American play to succeed on Broadway after the 1959 A Raisin In The Sun was Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom in 1984. Lahr states:
…no other major playwright – not Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill, or David Mamet – has negotiated the latitude to work so freely…
When one of Wilson’s smash hits, Fences, was to be given the Hollywood treatment, Wilson vetoed the studio’s choice of director. He was reported as saying that he declined a white director, not on the basis of race but on the basis of culture:
White directors are not qualified for the job. The job requires someone who shares the specifics of the culture of black Americans.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is one of the ten plays in Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle, although it is set in Chicago rather than Pittsburgh. Other plays in the cycle have won greater accolades, including Tony Awards and Pulitzer Prizes, butMa Rainey’s Black Bottom was Wilson’s first big success.
The play, like all of the plays in the Pittsburgh Cycle, focuses on the experiences of black Americans in a particular decade of the 20th Century. In this case, it is the 1920’s, when jazz and blues were the signature sounds, and the action revolves around a studio recording session where the great Ma Rainey (an actual blues star, not a fictional character) is recording some songs. Through this prism, Wilson examines the status and struggles of African-Americans in urban life. Power, status and change are in the spotlight.
Some thirty-three years after its Broadway premiere, Dominic Cooke’s revival of the play is part of the National’s current season and appears to represent another stake in the ground from Artistic Director Rufus Norris – his tenure will see more equality of representation on the stages of the National. A Wilson play is an ideal choice.
Just not this one.
Time has not been kind to Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Its dramatic form is old fashioned and the way the story is told is wearisome. There are long didactic passages which may have felt revolutionary in 1984 but don’t seem that way now. The understanding of the plight of the African-American has improved exponentially over the decades and this play no longer has anything startling to say about that plight.
Wilson’s thoughts about the need for directors of his work to be ones who share the cultural history of African-Americans, at first blush, seem unfair. Surely part of the job of a director is to understand and get to grips with the cultural background of the situation of the characters in the narrative, to understand what the words mean and what the unspoken words or actions in the play add up to say? Modern directors approach Greek tragedy or Shakespeare every day without necessarily knowing anything about the cultural background the playwrights were reacting to or reflecting. What is it about the work of Wilson which limits the pool of persons who may properly direct them?
Yet, watching Cooke’s production, it was impossible not to wonder whether there were nuances, themes or sub-texts missing from it. Events occurred without any attempt at contextual explanation. Why, for instance, Dussie Mae, Ma Rainey’s apparent lover, is willing to betray her with the self-assured womaniser Levee with Ma so close by? Why did Dussie Mae think Ma would not come look for her? Why did both she and Levee assume Slow Drag would not inform anyone about their act of sexual congress he interrupted? Why, when specifically taunted by Levee about the fact that he, Levee, had done nothing wrong in relation to Dussie Mae did Slow Drag not speak up? What cultural context led to these key silences? If there was no cultural context, what is a modern audience to make of these issues?
Levee finds himself humiliated in matters musical, first by Ma Rainey (who refuses to use his arrangements) and then later by Sturdyvant, who refuses to record Levee’s compositions but is willing to buy them outright at $5 a piece. But Levee exacts punishment not against either of his true oppressors but a fellow musician whose views about the world are very different to Levee’s. Again, the production does not provide a rationale for this. Whether there actually is one in the writing or any shared cultural understanding of black Americans is unclear.
The play makes several points in a crystal clear way. In the 1920’s in Chicago, black Americans were kept oppressed by where they were permitted to live and how they were permitted to make a living. White Americans were happy to exploit black Americans and rarely thought anything of it. Occasionally, when white Americans wanted something a black American had to offer, they were willing to bend their usual rules to accommodate the black American – but only so far. Black Americans were as willing to betray and humiliate their own kind as white Americans were.
But, apart from those points, none of which could be considered novel, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom really has little to say. Whole sections are repetitive and dull, and although it concerns music, there is not much that is musical about the writing.
What it does have are some splendidly drawn characters, and some of those characters are given interesting speeches or business to do. It seems now to be more a play for actors to enjoy performing rather than audiences to enjoy, or to learn from, watching.
The design by Ultz seemed to underline the play’s weaknesses. The sense of the recording studio where Ma Rainey performs is not achieved in any realistic sense. Items of furniture and some set pieces (a silver container box is suspended in the air to represent an upstairs recording booth) create the notion of where events are unfolding. An underground room emerges courtesy of a slow hydraulic system when the action transfers to the area where the black musicians are preparing or waiting. While this absolutely underlined the segregated areas for whites and blacks, as did a “No admittance” sign on the stairway to the recording booth, the delay that occurs as that underground area rises and falls is frustrating and off-putting. And unnecessary.
The best performance comes from O-T Fagbenle who makes the tall, jazz-infused, hip-swivelling, dangerous composer/chancer Levee glow with life. He makes the best of the flat dynamics and melodramatic squalor of the play and creates an interesting and quite memorable character. All of the other performers succeed in their roles, Sharon D Clarke and Lucian Msamati in particular, but none really leaves a lasting impression. Clarke has no difficulty with the faux Diva dynamics of the difficult Ma, and she is especially endearing in her treatment of the shy and stuttering Sylvester (a slightly overdone Tunji Lucas) but the dynamics of her relationship with the other players and Dussie Mae (a somewhat bewildered Tamara Lawrence) were difficult to understand. When her song finally came to be sung, it was not a big, showy number and this seemed surprising, both in light of Clarke’s formidable singing prowess and the set-up of the play.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the least sympathetic characters in the piece are the exploitative and unkind white men in charge of the recording studio, Sturdyvent and Irvin. It felt like one should loathe these characters but neither Stuart McQuarrie nor Finbar Lynch, respectively, summoned up that emotion. But then, none of the other cast members really evoked any sense of empathy either. Continually, there was a detachment to the proceedings, even from the third row, which was puzzling and, ultimately, defeating. Too often members of the audience around me seemed to be laughing at the actors, rather than laughing with the characters (When there was something to laugh about, which was not especially often.)
It is admirable of the National to embrace the staging of works by black writers featuring great roles for black actors; frankly, it is necessary that such opportunities are given – readily and frequently.
Could a different director have made Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom resonate in remarkable ways? Was Wilson right about who should direct his plays? These are the questions which remain with one long after the fall of the curtain.