Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

If you are thinking of seeing this play and don’t want to know too much about the story then read no further.

I must confess that I’d never heard of August Wilson until I went to see his play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at the National Theatre last night. Yet in 1990 he was the most produced American playwright. He was born poor in Pittsburgh in 1945 and died rich in 2005.

As I sat down to watch the play I knew something about Ma Rainey, “the mother of the blues,” but I didn’t know what exactly the play was about. I imagined it was about Ma Rainey and the blues, and in some ways it was; but it was much more about the black experience in the US. The play was set in Chicago in 1927, and Wilson went on to write plays that captured the black experience in several decades.

The 20s were a time when black people were called “niggers,” including by themselves, and white people were utterly dominant. Wilson’s play is set on an afternoon when Rainey was recording four songs for a record. Her manager was white, and the boss of the record company was white. Scenes of the play alternated between those where there were only blacks, mostly the four members of the band, and where there were whites and blacks. This was cleverly done at the National, where the bare band room came up out of the stage.

Most of the play was the banter among the band (too much so, Chicken thought) and the voices and words were indisputably black, so much so that I concluded rightly that the author must be black and wrongly that the actors must be black Americans. The word “nigger,” which is still the most shocking word in English, was the way the band addressed each other. The piano player was a philosopher who had been every kind of fool but never the same fool twice. His main protagonist was the horn [trumpet, or was it a cornet?] player, a city nigger who looked down on the other three country niggers. He looked down as well on the “jug band music” they were laying with Ma Rainey.

All of the band members told compelling stories, but the heart of the play was the story told by the horn player after he was accused by the others being “spooked” by the white recording manager. In fact all if the blacks apart from Ma Rainey immediately moved into subservient mode when a white man was around. But the horn player hated the accusation, reflecting the growing confidence of urban blacks, and launched into the story of how when he was eight years old he watched eight white men rape his mother. At age eight he took a long knife and stabbed one of the men. They didn’t kill him but slashed his chest. He pulled open his very smart suit to show his scar. Then he told how his father had taken his family away, returned, and managed to kill four of the white men before he was lynched. The horn player was proud that he got four of them.

While being raped his mother had called out for God to help, but God didn’t with the result that the horn player knew that God was a white man who cared only for whites, death had power that life could never have, and that he’d be happy to sell his soul to the devil. He was deeply scarred with the consequences of being easily angered and happy to take great risks. The scene in which he describes what happened to his mother and father comes immediately before the interval, and his scars lead to a dreadful outcome at the end of the play.

Ma Rainey is the one black who is not subservient to the whites. She turns up late for the recording session, insists on her version of a song and including a voice part by a “nephew” with a stutter, carousels with her female lover, and refuses to perform until they have gone to a shop and brought her a Coke. She behaves this way, you feel, just to show that she can. But she’s under no illusions: she knows that once the white men  have the songs in can she’ll count for little. They are interested only in her money making voice, and even her records are sold not to whites but to blacks. She too is being rendered dysfunctional by black white relations.

The actors not only act wonderfully but perform blues numbers, which surprised me. I kept looking for signs that they weren’t playing the instruments, but I’m sure they were. The blues were important in that they belonged entirely to blacks, being created, listened to, understood, and felt only by blacks. Whites couldn’t get the blues, although I reflected that it was white English bands like the Rolling Stones that would bring the blues to a global, including white American, audience and make millions doing so.

I enjoyed the play and was left wanting to see be others by August Wilson. The National programme tells me Denzel Washington is producing all 10 plays for HBO.

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