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  • Articles by Mary

    Ma Rainey's Black Bottom at the National Theatre


    August Wilson set out to tell the world about the African American experience. His series, Pittsburgh Cycle, focuses serially on each decade in the 20th century, and is mostly set in the Hill district of Pittsburgh in which Wilson grew up.  The exception is Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom set in Chicago and currently playing at the National Theatre.

     

    For Wilson plays weren’t about people, they were about white people or black people and how their lives were lived. He was a passionate believer in the power and integrity of black culture and his plays are all firmly embedded in and expressive of this culture.  He was dismissive of colour blind casting feeling that race was of such overwhelming importance that plays and acting could not ignore them and be meaningful. His most successful play Fences failed to be made into a film because Wilson insisted that only a black director could grasp the cultural context. 

     

    Wilson’s feel for black dialogue is the back bone of Ma Rainey. The play’s strength is the idle chit chat and bickering which flesh out the characters, their backgrounds and their preoccupations.   The high drama, when it occurs, covers old ground of power, racial oppression and cruelty which sadly isn’t news and wasn't in 1984 when the play was first produced.  

     

    This isn't a great play. The acting by London theatre standards is unremarkable. But it is an engaging and credible glimpse into a world which has been either ignored or sensationalised. Our appetite is whetted. And there are nine more plays in the series.   Until 18 May.


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