Waiting for Ma Rainey is a bit wearisome.
Waiting for Ma Rainey is a bit wearisome. But it's not much fun for the band either. In Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, August Wilson's sharply focused play uses a recording session of the legendary "Madame Rainey, mother of the blues" as a window on to the prejudice and hypocrisy encountered by African-Americans in 1920s Chicago. Stuck in a dingy, cramped below-stairs rehearsal space - out of the sight and mind of the white men's upper-level recording studio - the four black musicians pass the time, gradually revealing more of their characters and attitudes through banter, reminiscences and monologues. They talk, we listen, and everyone waits.
The pianist philosophizes, Slow Drag the bassist keeps a steady beat, the trombonist and leader, Cutler, gradually unbuttons into a raconteur, but it's Levee, the young, fiercely defiant trumpeter who grabs our attention. Deeply scarred by the traumatic events of his childhood, Levee - passionately played by Cornelius Macarthy - is a seething bundle of pent-up frustration. Apart from his musical ambitions as a songwriter and, one day soon he's sure, band-leader, his pride and joy is a shiny new pair of shoes on which he's busted a week's wages. Personalities rather than plot are what makes Wilson's drama tick. Just when we feel stuck in a groove Ma finally makes her entrance upstairs, all prima donna in furs, foul mood and furious demands, accompanied by her young lesbian lover and stuttering nephew.
Ma's manager and the studio boss toady and bluster around, fawning over her million-dollar voice, politely distant with the bandsmen they address as "boy". She's late, the studio's impatient, the band strikes up. But gutsy Ma Rainey, astutely played by Melanie La Barrie, hasn't got where she is without learning a few tricks. "As soon as they get my voice down on them recording machines, then it's just like if I'd be some whore and they roll over and put their pants on. Ain't got no use for me." She toughs it out over which version she'll record of the Black Bottom, the1920s hit dance, and the consequences are nail-biting, comic, and ultimately devastating.
Gemma Bodinetz allows the story to tell itself, her understated production switching convincingly between the two worlds, straddling the divide between the money-making bosses and the music-making workers. The music switches between "jug band" blues on stage and recorded jazz, La Barrie smokey-voiced and full of natural quality. If Wilson's way is sometimes too wordy, too slow in coming to the boil, his pace allows events to unfold realistically, so that Levee's outbursts crackle all the more electrifyingly while the rest of this cast fill the empty spaces between the interludes with a variety of colour.
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