Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at the National Theatre achieved a 4.2-star average from the pro critics, with four giving it full marks. Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph) hailed an “exemplary and revelatory revival” which, he suggested, reaffirms playwright August Wilson’s “talent and significance”. Mark Shenton (The Stage) found it “extraordinarily detailed and dramatically thrilling” although suggesting Wilson’s plots are “merely a resonant background onto which to layer a superbly orchestrated and vividly realised set of characters”.
He saw the play use music “naturally… intricately and intimately” to bring its themes and tensions to the fore, while Cavendish observed: “Wilson uses idle conversation to create a mood as rich, textured and heart-stopping as any blues standard.” Susannah Clapp (Observer),who also thought Dominic Cooke’s production “terrific”, felt the play “plays jazz-like variations on more than one theme” and praised “Whip-sharp plotting”.
Among what Clapp called a “superb cast,” all praised Sharon D Clarke. Clapp enjoyed her Ma Rainey’s “imperious splendor” and Cavendish thought her “terrific” finding “the understated way she shows the character’s fighting spirit, with eye-rolls of boredom and clenched-jawed contempt… transfixing”. Shenton found Clarke’s “powerhouse delivery… exhilarating”. Clapp acknowledged “Her golden delivery of the title song” as “a high point” which, Cavendish reported, “thrills the whole auditorium”.
The real focus of the play, however, is her band. Cavendish described Lucian Msamati, O-T Fagbenle, Clint Dyer and Giles Terera as as “a pitch-perfect quartet; performances to die for”. Shenton found them “remarkable” and several highlighted Fagbenle and Msamati. Cavendish observed “a teasing jocularity” through which “Wilson floats a potent contrast between a fatalistic idea of the African-American as a self-aware underdog versus a defiant spirit of self-determination”, a tension which attests “in an unforced way to the bitter legacy and barely buried traumas of slavery”.
Shenton suggested the supporting actors are “equally brilliant”. Clapp highlighted “a sharp and alluring professional debut” from Tamara Lawrance, and Cavendish detected “not a weak link”, summing up, “an evening of ensemble pleasure”. Taylor found “their generosity to each other beautiful to watch” suggesting “The richly detailed ensemble acting… does glowing justice” to Wilson’s “masterly mix of hurt and humour”. Shenton, while voicing common reservations about an “industrial” design with “a clunky reveal of the band’s downstairs rehearsal rooms” declared this “a minor glitch in an otherwise fantastic production” which he found “immensely powerful”.