From British daily The Morning Star:
PAUL FOLEY praises August Wilson’s expose on racist oppression, but thinks that Manchester’s Royal Exchange doesn’t do it justice.
“Blacks are the leftovers from history.” That is the desperate cry from Toledo, the pianist with Ma Rainey‘s band.
The deep scars from years of oppression is the leitmotif weaving through August Wilson’s play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.
Two-time Pulitzer winner Wilson was arguably the most important black poet and playwright of the late 20th century.
Following in the footsteps of James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansbury, Wilson provided a voice for the generations of African-Americans who were subjected to the inhumanity of racism.
In the early 1980s, he set himself the challenge of writing 10 plays covering 10 decades of racial tyranny.
The final play of the cycle Radio Golf was premiered at Yale Rep only a few months before the great man died from cancer.
The first of the cycle was Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Set in 1927, the action takes place in a recording studio.
The studio, controlled by the white recording companies, was notorious for ripping off black talent in search of easy profits.
She knows that she must grab what she can from the record bosses, because, as soon as they “capture her voice on their recording machines,” they will dump her.
Her band are a group of talented session artists who have each suffered the ignominy of racism.
Their response to their ordeal is quite different. Band leader and trombonist Cutler prefers to negotiate his way through a system which views him as subhuman.
Double bass player Slow Drag finds comfort in his music, reefers and the bottle.
The philosopher of the group is Toledo. To him, “blacks are shit on by whites” and that is the way life is.
The real anger emerges from the horn player Levee.
Traumatised from a young age by witnessing the gang rape of his mother by four white farmers, the young man is screaming for change.
He sees his escape through jazz, but the white bosses have other ideas. His years of frustration and anger finally boil over in rage and violence.
This is a hugely important play and it is a great pity that this production is patchy and only intermittently captures Wilson’s passion.
See also here.