Reviews round-up: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at the National Theatre

A reviews round-up for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at the National Theatre.

The National’s revival of August Wilson’s modern classic Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom has opened to outstanding reviews.

The first of ten in Wilson’s mighty Pittsburgh Cycle of dramas documenting decade by decade the African-American experience through the 20th century, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom tackles two major subjects: black history and white exploitation.

Set in a Chicago recording studio in 1927, where the real-life blues singer Ma Rainey has come to cut some new discs. While Rainey may be a despotic diva in the studio, Wilson makes clear she has little clout in the white world beyond. It’s a play of passion and power, and playing ‘the game’ even when it’s stacked against you.

Sharon D Clarke puts in formidable performance as Ma Rainey, but this show is played out by Ma Rainey’s electrifying band – O-T Fagbenle, Lucian Msamati, Clint Dyer and Giles Terera – who rehearse (a little) and bicker (a lot).

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is directed by Dominic Cooke, with design by Ultz, lighting by Charles Balfour, music by Tim Sutton, sound by Paul Arditti, movement by Coral Messam and fight direction by Bret Yount.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom runs until 18 May 2016 at the National Theatre.


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Average rating score for this production


'Revelatory - This is a marvellous revival of August Wilson's tale of a blues legend and her band in 1927 Chicago. Sharon D Clarke is terrific as Ma Rainey, regally imperious as she arrives with her entourage, wearing a fur coat that’s shed to reveal a glittering green dress, her formidable attitude softening only in the presence of her unashamedly kissed girlfriend, Dussie Mae. When she finally sings, she thrills the whole auditorium, but it’s the understated way she shows the character’s fighting spirit, with eye-rolls of boredom and clenched-jawed contempt, that makes Ma’s a transfixing presence, dignified even in her disdain.’

‘This big, bold piece about 1920s race relations is a play of passion and power, starring a majestic Sharon D Clarke as the bisexual singer.’ ‘It’s a play of passion and power that, in Dominic Cooke’s excellent revival, gets some major performances. Sharon D Clarke lends the bisexual Ma Rainey a majestic composure and a fine voice – that she knows has little purchase beyond her chosen terrain.’

‘Dominic Cooke’s lively production gloriously realises August Wilson's radical politics. More where this came from, please.’

‘A timely revival of August Wilson's American classic, set at the dawn of the jazz age …. a tremendous piece of writing that offers tragicomic insight into what it was – and surely still is – to be a black man trying to play fair by white man’s rules.’ ‘Sharon D Clarke offers a wonderfully obstreperous performance as the eponymous blues star, the role is essentially a supporting one in a play….about men, most specifically Ma Rainey’s band: three smart, sussed older guys who’ve been playing this game for years and are wryly resigned to its unfairness (just as long as they get their money)’

‘Superbly immensely powerful production’ ‘Plot isn't the main point with Wilson though; it's merely a resonant background onto which to layer a superbly orchestrated and vividly realised set of characters, and the conflicts they have with each other, their histories and the exploitation of their talents.’

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