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lime Theatre Review: Ma Raineys Black Bottom

Lime Review - Theatre

Ma Raineys Black Bottom






words by

Natasha Julien

Reporter: Natasha Julien

By August Wilson.Directed by Dominic CookeChicago,1927. In a recording studio on the city’s South Side, a battle of wills is raging.


Ma Rainey, Mother of the Blues – played by Sharon D Clake, uses every trick in the book to fight her record producers for control of her music. Hardened by years of ill-treatment and bad deals, she’s determined that ‘Black Bottom’, the song that bears her name, will be recorded her way. Band members included Clint Dyer, O-T Fagbenle, Tunji Lucas, Lucian Msamati and Giles Terera.
But Levee, the band’s swaggering young trumpet player, plans to catapult the band into the jazz age. His ambition puts them all in danger.  Played by
Inspired by the real-life Blues legend and infused with her music, August Wilson’s play speaks powerfully of a struggle for self-determination against overwhelming odds and chronicles the twentieth century African American experience. The play deals with issues of race, art, religion and the historic exploitation of black recording artists by white producers.

Most of the play takes place around the musicians during sound check, not as you would think around larger than life Ma Rainey.  It is set one afternoon in the recording studio whilst the band members are awaiting the arrival of Ma Rainey and delves into the relationships between the band members and how living in a racist society has shaped who they are.  Tension between the young hot-headed trumpeter Levee, who has dreams of having his own band, and veteran players Cutler and Toledo soon become clear.  The play is definitely a slow burner and takes some time for you to understand the relationships between band members and to understand there individual stories, the pace feels slightly slow and drawn out in the first half.

Race, music and exploitation are the themes that are addressed.   Be prepared to hear stronger language then is the norm today, with constant use of derogatory terms that today are considered unsavoury, but this obviously highlights the racial tensions and use of language at that time which was considered acceptable. This play clearly shows the degradation and power struggles of some of our best blues artists at that point in time.

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