'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom'

Liverpool Playhouse until 19th June

Reviewed by Colin Serjent

Given that this play, written by Purlitzer Prize-winner August Wilson, takes place over a single day in a recording studio, there was surprisingly little music played. But this is no drawback in what proved to be a compelling performance by the actor-musicians.

The first act tended to be one-dimensional, with most of it involving prolonged and sometimes meandering, conversations centred around love, life, music and politics (notably the overt racism shown against black people in America circa 1920s)between the four musicians who formed Ma Rainey's backing band.

Most vocal in the often heated and philosophical discussions is trumpet player Levee (Cornelius Macarthy), who vividly recalls his tortured childhood, describing his mother being gang-raped by a group of white men, his father being murdered after killing some of them in revenge for her ordeal, and a friend of his family being lynched, hung and burnt. He also rails about the exploitation of black musicians by the white dominated music industry at that time - the anger of which results in tragic consequences at the end of the play.

But the second act proved to be faster paced and more engrossing, with a number of humorous interludes giving the play more light and shade. However I fail to see what is comical about a character who constantly stutters, as is the case with Ma Rainey's idiot nephew, who has been asked to announce the lead in to the piece of music they are in the studio to record.

Ma Rainey (Melanie LaBarrie), the so called Mother of the Blues, was a lengendary figure in the early days of the Chicago blues scene,and a mentor of Bessie Smith. She has an over bearing personality,both physically and mentally, with her band and the record producer, as well as her long-suffering manager. Basically she always gets what she demands, even a bottle of coca cola!

After a number of false starts, everyone celebrates after 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom' - The Black Bottom is the name of a 1920s dance craze -is finally recorded. But joy turns to despair when the producer tells them that this is not the case afer a cable leading to the recording booth was found dislodged from its plug.

But they finally succeed and everyone is paid for their efforts, with her backing band picking up a pittance for their efforts. The record they contributed in making would probably later sell in vast quantities throughout America.

The closing moments of the play produce a traumatic ending when a distraught Levee, who moments earlier was paid only a paltry $5 by the record producer for each of the songs he had written for him, reacted to having his brand new shoes accidentally stepped upon by another band member, by plunging a kife into his back.

'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom' runs for over two and a half hours, but it is time well worth spending in the company of this absorbing and thoughtful period piece.