Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a play from 1982, and not a new play as I once thought because I never heard of it before it won the Olivier for Best Revival of a Play this year. That’s the Oliviers (West End), not the Tonys (Broadway), so not passing judgment or anything, just keep that in mind. (Actually it won the Tony for Best Play when it premiered! Surprised face emoji!) And this is a very good production, with some powerful performances and an excellent set, but goodness I can’t with the play itself. There is no plot. Nothing really happens, and yet so much feels about to happen that it’s almost disappointing.
I was also so psyched to hear her sing a lot, as I assumed she would because it was a show about Ma Rainey, ffs. I mean, I knew it wasn’t produced as a musical, it was a play, but so was “Lady Day” and that was all music (because obviously, 2 hours with Billie Holiday and you’re gonna want it to be mostly music!). I figured it was technically called a play because, while full of music, it wasn’t music that advanced the plot or composed part of the plot, as musicals are defined. (For laymen: Pitch Perfect, for example, isn’t a ‘musical’ despite being very musical, because the characters actively know they are singing and it’s not like they are living in song or singing their feelings instead of talking them. The music isn’t the plot.)
Guess what. Ma Rainey isn’t even that kind of play.
It’s mostly Ma’s band, four musicians with wildly different viewpoints on life and race, talking in a rehearsal room before Ma arrives to record a session, and then talking after Ma leaves the session. Ma is a featured character, if that. So this was incredibly disappointing. I’m sure if you know this in advance, it helps a great deal, but I didn’t. Ma sang for about 20 seconds and it was RG but then the rest of the play happened.
So what is it about, this revered play from the esteemed August Wilson, whose name graces the Broadway theatre where “Jersey Boys” is playing? It’s like, Chicago in the 1920s and the band is being taken advantage of by the white producers, as per usual, and arguing about race and their experience as black men in the ‘20s and they just talk and argue and wait. And wait. They’re being held in the basement rehearsal room in the recording studio, and this set is very impressive. The four men are named Cutler, Toledo, Slow Drag (I can’t with this name), and Levee. Toledo is wise and cautious. Levee is a douche who is loud and reckless and thoughtless. He’s obsessed with how he presents himself to the world and thinks he’s entitled to a lot more than he gets in life, which is undoubtedly true given both his talent and the fact that he’s a black man, but he is not gonna get anything the way he acts. He’s abrasive and really annoying, actually. So the men argue about stuff for a while, and Levee shows off his new white shoes that he bought. He also gives some new songs he wrote to the white producers and is sure they are going to buy them. We hear really upsetting stories from all the men, and Levee's personal background is enough to make you feel sympathetic for anyone, no matter how terrible they are in the present. Everything they say reinforces how unjust and unfair society was and still is.
Then Ma comes really late, sings a tiny bit, and pisses off the white producers because of how late everything is and because she demands that her stuttering nephew do the intro to the title song, which takes a while, and everyone gets pissed off, and then Ma leaves. Cool. The entire part that was advertised was the tiniest part of the show. Ma was really good too. Darn.
Levee and Ma do not get along, because Levee is annoying af and wants them to do his arrangement of Black Bottom, which is a weird thing to disagree with your boss on. Like when you’re working for Ma Rainey as a musician, do whichever arrangement she wants. He really pushes it and pulls lots of other crap and so after the session (and after he erupts about how he’s gonna be big and doesn’t need her), Ma fires him. Then the men go back downstairs into their basement cave and argue more. Why aren’t they going home? They finished the session. I was confused! And one of them was fired! I was like past Bunuel asking questions of future Bunuel’s art in “Midnight in Paris’ - “why don’t they just leave?” Then the white producers come downstairs and tell Levee that they won’t be buying his songs after all, but they’ll pay him pennies to keep the rights and see what happens. (This obviously means they want them and think they will be successful, but don’t want to pay what’s due to the black writer, of course. Thieves.) The tension increases and the argue more and more, and then Toledo maybe accidentally or maybe not-at-all steps on Levee’s new shoes and so Levee stabs him, and he dies. Ruining both of their futures.
This is when husband and I looked at each other and were like “…um…WHAT IS THIS SHOW?” It was so unexpected but not in a good way. Not like ooh that’s an intriguing surprise, more like, that’s action from a different play entirely. It did not fit and it did not work for me. I honestly don’t know what the play was trying to achieve. The tone was all over the place. During the men’s long, long talks, they shared harrowing stories about their backgrounds and the injustice they’ve faced, but then they also made a lot of crude jokes. Then there would be this air of levity in the direction of the show, almost treating it like a comedy, and then Levee killed a man! It couldn’t figure out what it wanted to be or say, I felt.
I was also upset because all the advertising was misleading. The main show art is just of Ma at a microphone. If you saw that, what would you think the show was about? Same as I did, right? I should have done research but most people don’t. Not since the advertising campaign for “The Scottsboro Boys” in London have I found marketing materials to be so misleading. At least the acting across the board was tops, and the production values were good. And a good number of the men’s long talks were actually provocative and interesting. I just don’t get it as a play. It won the Tony in the '80s and like I said it won the Olivier this year. I’m obviously missing something! It really does say genuinely important things about injustice and race, and as monologues they are effective, but as a play it is not. Sadly the run here ended in May, but I hope that if any of you know the play you can explain to me what I am not seeing.