“What I wanna know is, if he a man of God, where the hell was God when all this was going on? Why didn’t God strike down on some of ’em crackers? Tell me that. I’ll tell you the truth. Cos he’s a white man’s God…God hates niggers…”- Levee
On Wednesday night I got to SE1 to finally get round to a handful of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. The staging and production (Dominic Cooke) is simple and slick- the show in terms of entertainment is spot on. The acting- hot damn!
Before the show I went up to the terrace bar and taught the bartender how to make a pineapple and mango #mocktail with a lil suttin’ sutttin’…
The play was out in ’84 by the late August Wilson (half German) who in 1990 was the most produced and successful of American playwrights. Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams and Mamet didn’t have sh!t on him. Wilson literally ‘owned’ his work and had ‘hit’ after ‘hit’ after ‘hit’ with his historical trajectory of issues facing black Americans per decade.
In ‘Ma Rainey’, August explores the dilemma of whether to embrace or deny their slave past on 1920’s Chicago using the two instrumental characters; the wise but humorous elder, ‘Toledo’ (Lucian Msamati) and the young and fearless ‘Levee’. OT- Fagbenle (aka Craig David) as ‘Levee’ totally went IN. Certified.
“I’m gonna ignore you, ‘cos you ignorant”– Toledo bickering with Levee.
The play is about a 4-piece band in a recording studio rehearsing Ma’s latest hit to be recorded. An awesome bit of staging is when the band’s area comes up through the floor like an elevator! The men are full of banter, bickering and heated discussions (with Clint Dyer as ‘Cutler’) and the ruthless ambitions of handsome Levee who wants to be a star and record his own new Jazz- style songs . This character is refreshing and telling- shamelessly desperate to sell his soul to the devil, in Act2 we learn the tragic events that shaped his smooth and uneasy swagger.
When Ma Rainey (Sharon D Clarke, centre) finally arrives with her young girlfriend, nephew and policeman, she let’s em know who’s the B.O.S.S. She demands they fix her car, record her song her way, her stuttering nephew does the opening intro. And she won’t sing a note until she’s had a bottle of Cola. She don’t ramp! Her demands are met by the white record producers- they need that voice and Ma knows once they’ve got it she’ll be pretty much thrown under the bus.
There are three explosive and heartfelt moments- including the ending , which won’t be to everybody’s taste; when a society has talented and hopeful people in unfair systems eventually some will crack. Fact.
I was mindful of the risk of reinforcing negative stereotypes of black men (good entertainers, too dumb or god fearing to meaningfully change their circumstances, violent etc) or the ‘diva’ black woman, especially as the vast majority of the audience were typically ‘over 55 and white’- a gentleman of such ‘demographic’ also pointed out, I wanted to spud him as there is potential for blind ignorance. At the end of the show the American tourist I was sat next to pretty much said ” At least things are better now” to which I explained “Yes but no- it’s mostly just different and there are parts of the world where this sh!t goes down for people of other races too”. #realtalk
That said, it’s a really enjoyable show with humour, style and conviction.
This week Beyonce’s lyrics and visuals in ‘Lemonade’ (I’ve seen once, muted) ignited a similar debate after a review from the clever ‘clunt’ Piers Morgan and Jamelia’s critical response (http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/beyonce-lemonade-piers-morgan-jamelia-open-letter-a7001261.html). There is truth that ‘black’ features are claimed and endorsed by the industry for commercial/status gains. When the ‘black’ person wants to make a point, a protest or celebration of their history, audacious resilience and beauty…it’s funny how the crowd thins out…
Anyways, Ma’s showing her bottom’til May 18th- it’s really juicy!
Miss Brown says…Get Down! 😀