August Wilson's 1984 Broadway hit was a landmark in American theatre, launching his career as the 20th century's leading black playwright. This new production on the National Theatre's Lyttelton stage by Dominic Cooke is superbly cast, with the amazing Sharon D. Clarke in commanding form as Ma Rainey, a tough-as-old-boots 1920s blues singer who takes no prisoners.
Her delivery of the song that gives the play its title is worth the price of a ticket on its own, but the play isn't really about her. Its emotional core is in the relationship between her four backing musicians, Toledo the pianist (Lucian Msamati), Cutler the trombonist (Clint Dyer), Slow Drag the bass player (Giles Terera), and Levee the horn player (O-T Fagbenle). Cramped in a small rehearsal room underneath the main recording studio, they while away the time between recordings with a mixture of edgy banter, humour and point-scoring which ends in a horrifying moment of violence.
The set by Ultz defines the play, squeezing the four musicians into a series of interconnecting prison-like boxes which rise and fall at the front of the stage. Above them, the recording studio is a bare space, dominated by a shiny metal container from which the recording engineer and the group's manager (both white) descend a narrow spiral staircase. My first reaction was that the cramped spaces wouldn't leave much space for the actors to do their stuff, but as the play developed I realised that the set forms an ideal framework to express what the play is really about.
We're looking at a divided world, a tripartite structure defined by race, with the whites in control at the top and the black musicians trapped in cages at the bottom. In the middle is the studio where they interact. Superficially, the temperamental Ma Rainey is the one in charge, repeatedly bending the two white men to her will, forcing them to beg her to drop her tantrums and continue. But eventually it becomes clear that her small victories are just that -- small victories that cannot compensate for a wider world of racial injustice.
At first the play seems to develop very slowly. While waiting for Ma Rainey, the four musicians just talk away in what seems to be a meandering conversation punctuated over and over again by the word 'nigger'. By the standards of today, it seems a bit slow and wordy, but Wilson's painstaking creation of character pays off and the faultlines in this four-way relationship emerge. Toledo is the pedantic, newspaper-reading intellectual in the group, lecturing the others on Africa and history. Cutler and Slow Drag are easy-going professional musicians, happy to play whatever they are told to play. The odd one out is Levee (a brilliant performance by O-T Fagbenle), a snappy dresser with musical and social ambitions. His jazz-style improvisations with the trumpet and his desire to compose his own music and form his own band bring him into repeated conflict not just with the others but with the formidable Ma Rainey, who has no time for him. After a series of put-downs, Levee brings the first act to a close with an electrifying monologue about how his mother was raped and his father murdered by a lynch mob in the American south.
The second half of the play brings the story to a climax. The recording session, delayed by technical hitches and other problems, mostly caused deliberately by Ma Rainey, comes to a successful close. That's the moment when the real power relationships kick back in. Sturdyvant the recording manager comes down to the rehearsal room to pay the musicians in cash, and we see them reduced instantly from real people into figures of fawning deference, completely dependent on the white man. Humiliation is still humiliation when there is no lynch mob, but a white boss stuffing dollar bills into the jacket pocket of a black man's stylish suit.
I can't draw any comparisons with other productions of August Wilson's work, but this production, which I saw in preview, is superbly thought through and wonderfully acted. And the music is great. Go and see it.