Adrian Lester as 'Ira Aldridge' in Red Velvet currently showing at The Garrick Thetare, London

The Triumphant Return of Ira Aldridge to the West End. TBB's @DescantDeb Reviews Red Velvet

The unique beauty of theatre, and absolutely in the case of the current 2016 revival of Red Velvet, is that you really, really have to see it for yourself! A film will deliver the same print of the same moments captured in time to different audiences. But the medium of ...

Read More

The National Theatre Brings Us Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. TBB Review

Is it needless to explain that the Blues is a music born out of the suffering of black folks from the deep south of north America by way of Africa?  Pain, regret, loss, anger, frustration, religion, racism, sex, survival… that’s the Blues and it’s also what’s packed into August Wilson’s ...

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ShakaRa Speaks On It ‘Boycott’ the Oscars: Are We Missing the Point?

“We must inspire a literature and promulgate a doctrine of our own without any apologies to the powers that be” – Marcus Mosiah Garvey Ok first up, let me be clear; for the purposes of this article, I am not concerned with whether Jada Pinkett-Smith only said what she said because ...

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TBB's @DescantDeb Discusses The Original Rejection of Blackface as Adrian Lester, OBE & Lolita Chakrabarti Bring Ira Aldridge Back To The West End

Adrian Lester, OBE, one of our most prolific and respected dramatic actors, will be gracing the West End stage from January 23rd 2016, starring in Red Velvet, written by actress, playwright and producer Lolita Chakrabarti (currently starring as Lila in Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands on ITV). Oh, and some ...

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TBB's @DescantDeb Speaks to Ashley Zhangaza About His Role in 'Raisin in The Sun'

One of the reasons we love writing for Madame TBB is because of getting the chance to talk to people like Ashley Zhangazha. Look him up, and you will find his height, eye and hair colour, accents he can do, and a list of roles he has taken on. You ...

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ShakaRa Speaks to the UK's Most Prominent Black Farmer Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones

You would be hard pushed to find about brand name more literal than “The Black Farmer”. It not only describes Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones, (the man behind the brand), but reflects simple but effective work ethos that has made his business a success. The Black Farmer prides himself on providing good quality, ...

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(l-r) Michael B. Jordan as 'Adonis 'Donnie' Johnson' & Sylvester Stallone as 'Rocky Balboa' in 
Ryan Coogler's 'Creed'

TBB Reviews Ryan Coogler's 'Creed' Starring Michael B. Jordan. Out in UK Cinemas This Friday.

I was watery-eyed through most of Creed.  Yes I am that typical female who flinches at every punch, yet shouts loudly when the underdog forces the favourite to win against the ropes. Then back to hiding behind my hands pondering how barbaric boxing is as the blood spills, faces split ...

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ShakaRa Speaks On It: Tarzan, Niggas, Complacency & Dappy's Freudian Slip

So we are back on the case. When in 2013, a video featuring white rapper, English Frank equating being “dumb” with being “African” hit viral status; my response was “THE URBAN RACISM REPORT….” (Click here to read). Today, another white rapper, Dappy, feels comfortable enough to refer to his bredrins as ...

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Krystine Atti

TBB’s Albert Yanney Chats-up Creator of Comedy Short ‘The Tinder Problem’ Krystine Atti

26 year old actress Krystine Atti has written, directed and starred in her very own comedy short 'The Tinder Problem'. Fresh for 2016, The Tinder Problem is a tongue-in-cheek look at online dating scenarios when lead character ‘Tobi’ yields to peer pressure and suspected loneliness. Whilst a light-hearted snapshot of digital ...

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David Ajala as Rate in ITV's 
'Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands'

Photographers: Laurence Cendrowicz, Aimee Spinks and Justin Slee

This image is the copyright of ITV

TBB's Yasmin Speaks to David Ajala Currently Starring in ITV's Beowulf

David Ajala is the UK’s best kept secret.  He's played leading roles for major US networks and has graced the Hollywood red carpet on more than one occasion. Born in Hackney, east London Ajala decided he was going to act from a young age and was in no doubt that one day he would ...

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Clarke Peters as 'Ralph Coates' in ITV's Jericho

Photo Credit: Stuart Wood

TBB Speaks to Clarke Peters About Owning the Black Narrative and His Role in New ITV Series Jericho

I’ve wanted to speak to Mr Clarke Peters since I fell in love with Treme, the 2010 series by David Simon which takes an introspective look at life in New Orleans post Hurricane Katrina. Of course I’d watched and loved Simon’s cult series The Wire and was a fan of Peters’ character ...

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Dr Frances Cress Welsing

ShakaRa Speaks On It: A Tribute to the Late Dr. Frances Cress Welsing

On Saturday 2nd January, 2016 the black scholarly, professional artistic and activist world woke to the news of the passing of one of its most longstanding, accomplished and formidable giants – Dr. Frances Cress Welsing. As evidenced by the nature of the millions of tributes which have flooded social media since, ...

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Wall to Wall CASTING CALL For New BBC Victorian Documentary

walltowallThe search is on for families/couples/siblings UK-wide to live, work and make ends meet exactly as the Victorian poor would have done.  You will be expected to find work, master old trades and sell their wares in order to put food on the table and to make the weekly rent.


Do you have a traditional trade that could be put to good use?
Do you lead a comfortable lifestyle and would you like your family to experience the reality of life for millions of Victorian children?
Would you like to experience the struggle that your ancestors once lived? They may have been from industrial cities such as Manchester, Liverpool, York, Birmingham etc.

Wall to Wall Media is casting for a landmark living history experiment that tells the story of what life was really like for the Victorian poor and how their plight changed our nation for the better.
We are looking for strong, determined contributors who think they could survive life on the Victorian bread line.

The series is due to be filmed over three weeks in Easter 2016 and the new Victorians will relocate for the duration of the filming to East London.

  • Did your ancestors migrate to the poorest areas of Victorian Britain?
  • Does your trade have its roots in the Victorian era?
  • Would you like your children to have the ultimate living history experience?
  • Do you have an ancestral connection to the industrial cities in the Victorian period.


If you think you have what it takes to survive the Victorian slum, email with the following information:

  1. Who you are, where you live, what you do, and whether you are applying as a family, couple or siblings?
  2. What interests you about the idea of living in a Victorian Slum for three weeks?
  3. Do you have ancestral connections to the industrial cities of Victorian Britain?
  4. The best contact number and time to call you back for a brief introduction by telephone.


Any enquiries, please call 020 7241 9228

BREAKIN’ CONVENTION ’16 International Festival of Hip Hop Dance Theatre Sadler’s Wells & National Tour April – June 2016

breakin_conventionSadler’s Wells’ critically acclaimed international festival of hip hop dance theatre, Breakin’ Convention, is back, with performances from UK and international companies and crews.

Now in its 13th year, this hugely popular Sadler’s Wells Production is once again hosted and curated by Associate Artist Jonzi D. Following the annual festival at Sadler’s Wells over the May bank holiday, Breakin’ Convention will then tour to eight venues across the UK throughout May until Wednesday 1 June 2016.

Breakin’ Convention has firmly established itself as one of the major highlights on the British dance calendar and one of the world’s greatest celebrations of hip hop culture.

The main London festival on Saturday 30 April & Sunday 1 May sees Sadler’s Wells’ foyer transformed with live DJs, freestyle dance jams, graffiti exhibitions, workshops from top international artists and live aerosol art. The participatory activities take place pre-show and during the interval.

For the fourth year running Breakin’ Convention takes it back to the roots of hip hop on bank holiday Monday 2 May with Park Jam, an outdoor party suitable for all the family in Spa Fields Park.

The tour line-up includes three international acts who were highlights of last year’s festival including France’s Antoinette Gomis, who presents Images, an atmospheric solo inspired by the music of Nina Simone and Civil Rights. Antoinette’s signature style originates from her background as a founder member of the all-female Zamounda crew from Paris. Spain’s award-winning Iron Skulls crew present the surreal Sinestesia – A dynamic work where these skilled dancers morph into post-apocalyptic survivors. World Champion bboy crew The Ruggeds from the Netherlands will perform the high octane Adrenaline on the National Tour.

French dance artist Antoinette Gomis Photo credit: Belinda Lawley

French dance artist Antoinette Gomis
Photo credit: Belinda Lawley

Sadler’s Wells Associate Artist Jonzi D is the founder and Artistic Director of Jonzi D Projects and Breakin’ Convention. A dancer, spoken word artist and director, he is the foremost advocate for hip hop and has changed the profile and influenced the development of the UK British hip hop dance and theatre scene over the last two decades. Jonzi D is a graduate from the London Contemporary Dance School and a former Associate Artist at The Place. He has toured his own work internationally and is regularly invited to judge international dance competitions.

Jonzi D devised and directed TAG… Just Writing My Name in 2006, IVAN in 2006 and Markus the Sadist, a rap theatre piece in 2009. All pieces successfully toured the UK to critical acclaim. He has also devised, choreographed and featured in various hip hop inspired fashion shows.

In 2013 he wrote and toured The Letter, a piece about the responses to receiving a nomination for an MBE in 2011, and Broken Lineage in collaboration with Ivan Blackstock.

Earlier this year Jonzi D performed The Letter at the 2015 Edinburgh Fringe and also featured on TedEX Warwick and spoke at the European Commission forum on creativity and diversity.

Full Breakin’ Convention line-up to be announced Spring 2016.

Listings information:

Breakin’ Convention ’16 International Festival of Hip Hop Dance Theatre Sadler’s Wells, EC1R

  • Saturday 30 April – Monday 2 May 2016
  • Performances: Saturday 30 April & Sunday 1 May at 6pm (pre-show activities from 4pm)
  • Tickets: £15 – £24 (£17 concessions)
 Ticket office: 020 7863 8000 /

Breakin’ Convention ’16 embarks on its seventh National tour after the May bank holiday performances at Sadler’s Wells, taking in eight venues across the UK including newcomers Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham and Gulbenkian Theatre, Canterbury. This has been made possible following a grant from Arts Council England.

Breakin’ Convention National Tour dates:

Saturday 7 May CAST, Doncaster | Tuesday 10 May Colston Hall, Bristol | Saturday 14 May Playhouse, Whitley Bay | Tuesday 17 & Wednesday | 18 May Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham | Saturday 21 May Blackpool Grand, Blackpool | Tuesday 24 May Corn Exchange, Kings Lynn | Saturday 28 & Sunday 29 May Gulbenkian Theatre, Canterbury | Wednesday 1 June Bournemouth Pavilion, Bournemouth

For further details on the Breakin’ Convention 2016 tour visit:


The Triumphant Return of Ira Aldridge to the West End. TBB’s @DescantDeb Reviews Red Velvet

Adrian Lester as 'Ira Aldridge' in Red Velvet currently showing at The Garrick Thetare, London

Adrian Lester as ‘Ira Aldridge’ in Red Velvet currently showing at The Garrick Thetare, London

The unique beauty of theatre, and absolutely in the case of the current 2016 revival of Red Velvet, is that you really, really have to see it for yourself! A film will deliver the same print of the same moments captured in time to different audiences. But the medium of theatre is more than just live, it is organic – a living thing which, from one performance to the next can never be the same.

Last Monday night, with Kenneth Branagh firmly focussing the spotlight on the soon-to-be-iconic trinity of Indhu Rubasingham, Lolita Chakrabarti and Adrian Lester, there was definitely an air of excited expectation down the Charing Cross Road. Taking in the sights from the red velvet seats which partially inspired the title, you are immediately struck by the absence of the usual stage or safety curtain. The space is authentically bedecked as backstage and dressing room areas and the rear of the set, which stretches as far back as any I’ve seen, is dressed with a semi-raised, equally inspirational red velvet curtain. It is kept, half in shadow, along with the set’s peripheral spaces, as they are slowly inhabited by the cast, like faded characters from a partial memory…

Adrian Lester is Ira Aldridge, in poor health and nearing the end of his life, yet preparing for a performance of King Lear in a Polish theatre. Much to his annoyance, he is disturbed by keen young journalist Halina Wozniak (Caroline Martin) desperate for an interview with him to make her name at her newspaper. Aldridge immediately dismisses her, only to find no defence against her passionate persistence to talk with him. He relents, partly because he wishes to wax lyrical about his craft and glory. But, Wozniak knows the story she wants – why he never returned to London’s prestigious West End in over 30 years.

1867 Lotz becomes 1833 London; the ailing Aldridge is transformed into the prime of his life, at the height of his artistic self-belief; and we find ourselves backstage at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden to the contemporaneous backdrop of London’s daily street demonstrations for the abolition of slavery in Britain and its colonies.
The Company – Charles Kean (Mark Edel-Hunt), Ellen Tree (Charlotte Lucas), Betty Lovell (Amy Morgan), Bernard Ward (Simon Chandler) and Henry Forrester (Alexander Cobb) – discuss the health of Edmund Kean as they are silently waited upon by the ever-present maid, Connie (Ayesha Antoine). The Olivier of his day, Kean has recently suffered an on-stage collapse during their production of Othello. They are concerned for the veteran actor, but unworried for the production, since his son Charles, heretofore Iago should, by convention, step into the title role. French theatre Manager Pierre LaPorte arrives in a state of excitement to inform them that he has engaged another actor of some repute instead, under the guise of creating the least disruption to the Company whilst worrying for Kean Snr. Kean Jnr is disappointed, but willing to make way for a peer. Forrester is excited at the prospect, but unforthcoming, as he recognises the name of Ira Aldridge.

Ayehsa Antoine as 'Connie' in 'Red Velvet' currently showing at The Garrick Theatre, London

Ayesha Antoine as ‘Connie’ in ‘Red Velvet’ currently showing at The Garrick Theatre, London

Red Velvet is the bitter-sweet reminiscence of Aldridge’s West End debut at 29, an honour and opportunity so rare as to seem too good to be true. It proves just so, and is cut short, never to be repeated.
Chakrabarti penned this play to deal with aspects of friendship, loyalty, betrayal and disillusionment, using the stark contradictions of clever juxtapositions. The themes that she explores are so very universal, and are not only particularly well-suited to this story, but also to the present day. There are right-thinking demonstrators outside, as the casual privilege of subjection continues within. There is the constant clashing of artistic freedom and the camaraderie of professional regard, as the external pressures of social norms and the gatekeepers of that art intervene. There is the obvious plight of Aldridge, rooted in his colour, and that of the women, rooted in their gender.

Aldridge and Laporte have one particular climactic exchange. But Chakrabarti surprises with who emerges on the higher ground, and whether that friendship survives is a satisfying question you are left pondering. Connie and Aldridge, two Africans who are opposites in many respects, come together in one poignant exchange which may well have had as much a lasting effect on Aldridge’s self-imposed 30 year exile as any of the more obvious reasons.

Rubasingham guides the story through a series of remarkably effective back-and-forth transformations. Starting with the jump in time and space from Lotz to London, we also experience the transition of an almost spent Aldridge returning to youthful vitality; Cobb and Chandler’s secondary roles as 1860s Casimir and Terence, respectively, and Martin’s secondary role as 1830s Margaret Aldridge are all-engrossing and an utter credit to the production. But, perhaps most intriguingly, Rubasingham’s gossamer-like touch changes to the dynamic of the ‘Fourth Wall’  as the audience, external to the story she quite deftly hands you your costume and you unconsciously don it as you are absorbed first as the 10th character, then as the audience within… and around and back again.

If you have ever stood on the brink of knowing you were qualified for a task only to witness it inexplicably crumble, Adrian Lester’s Aldridge will give it voice and afford you some measure of catharsis. His performance has been repeatedly described as a masterclass, and it is no exaggeration. Your predisposition to cherish him as the national treasure that he is, is tested by what is presented before you. This, above all, is a huge credit to him as an actor. The progressions from age to youth and back again, from everyday humour to life-changing decisions, from exuberance, through fury, to disenchantment are simply beautifully executed. You will laugh, cringe, clench and weep, and that could be at emotional turmoil, or a simple air or gesture. It is, at times, difficult to tear your eyes away from him.

There are significant periods when Lester is not present on-stage and you will find yourself seeking out his next possible entry point. But, this does not detract from the strength of his cast mates. Native Scot Elliott brilliantly channels Frenchman Laporte’s artistic passion and intensity, such that it doesn’t bounce, but ricochets around the house, especially before Lester’s maelstrom. Edel-Hunt inspires enough empathy for Charles Kean’s fortunes and petulant coping strategies to temper your dislike of him and his shortcomings as a man of honour. Lucas endows Ellen Tree with the true meaning of inquisitive art, and it is intensely satisfying to witness her blossoming into a collaborative co-star, as much a novelty to her as it is to play opposite a real black face. Chandler’s Bernard Ward is the voice of the Empire, but he also plays the promotion from chorus to co-star with exuberant relief, which hints at the self-doubt in his own artistic worth. Cobb’s Henry Forrester and Morgan’s Betty Lovell expertly play the natural balancing male and female innocence and light relief to great effect. Whilst Martin’s turn as 1830s Margaret was a necessarily minor part, that glimpse into the Aldridge marriage assumes weighty significance during her husband’s exchange with Laporte. She becomes a force of nature as young ambitious Wozniak frustrated with the status quo. And through it all, it is Antoine’s Connie, whose constant presence bears down on events in a most meaningful way.

Adrian Lester & Charlotte Lucas in 'Red Velvet' currently showing at The Garrick Theatre, London

Adrian Lester & Charlotte Lucas in ‘Red Velvet’ currently showing at The Garrick Theatre, London

And so, to Othello. In our recent interview [1], Lester told us about the discomfiture people have and still do feel at the play, “They just don’t like it!” he said. This is interesting, since it is simply the age-old conundrum of jealous love and those who think they have something to gain by exploiting it. It is so very human that the French observe it as a defence of madness – a crime of passion! No, what makes Othello so disturbing is wonderfully observed in Red Velvet, and consummately executed by Lester, despite it being the playwright’s imagining of events. That he is not played by a white actor in blackface means that the audience cannot take refuge from the very real madness Shakespeare wrote into the piece. As Lester’s Aldridge gets what he desires – to inject a realism into their make-believe, to convey the meaning of what all the iambic pentameter says so prettily, he reaps the consequences.

A white actor in blackface touching and eventually killing a white actress is still a white actor, considered to be a gentleman underneath it all. Take away the blackface and replace it with a black face, and here is a black man defiling and killing a white woman. Belief is no longer suspended. This is the realisation of one of the most feared assaults projected onto the African race, given enough freedom. Phrases like ‘true nature’ take on a double meaning. To Aldridge, his is passion for the art. To the critics and even to Laporte it is simply a violent single-mindedness to fulfil a need. It reminded me of Cyd Charisse saying that her husband always knew who she’d been dancing with, as Gene Kelly always left her with bruises and Fred Astaire did not. Aldridge would never be afforded the assumption of being a gentleman underneath it all.

Red Velvet is labour of love, fed by the absolute passion Chakrabarti felt for bringing this story to the stage. Kenneth Branagh, as serendipity would have it, has been aware of the play from the days of its earliest completed treatment. His love of Shakespeare and theatre history meant that at his first given opportunity of staging Plays at The Garrick, he decided that restoring such a rare Shakespearean actor as Ira Aldridge to the West End was a foregone conclusion. This time, the London theatre press gave Aldridge, borrowing Adrian Lester’s presence, a standing ovation, which demanded 3 bows from the Company.

I would urge everyone to see this play, but you’ll have to hurry, as it is already halfway through its run and ends on February 27th 2016. Having now seen Lester perform just one scene from Othello I am filled with regret at having missed his own award-winning Othello at The National in 2013. I think everyone agrees, both plays are much the richer for it.

To book tickets, visit:


[1] –








review of  Red Velvet for the british blacklist by  @DescantDeb

Amber Riley Will star as ‘Effie White’ in the West End production.

Amber Riley.  Photo credit: Blair Caldwell

Amber Riley.
Photo credit: Blair Caldwell

Amber Riley will make her West End debut this year in the UK premiere of the Tony-Award® winning musical Dreamgirls. The American actress and singer best known for her role as ‘Mercedes Jones’ in the Golden Globe Award winning television musical comedy Glee, will play soulful singer ‘Effie White’ in the production which will open at the Savoy Theatre with performances from November 2016. Tickets will go on sale this spring with further dates, casting and creative team to be announced soon.

Amber Riley says: “I am so honoured and excited to not only be playing such an iconic role, but also to be working with Sonia Friedman and Casey Nicholaw. Working on the West End is now a dream realised, I just feel like this is going to be something special!”

Olivier and Tony-Award® winning Casey Nicholaw (The Book of Mormon, Disney’s Aladdin and Something Rotten!) will direct and choreograph Dreamgirls and says: “I am beyond thrilled to be directing and choreographing Dreamgirls in the West End. It was one of the first shows I saw when I moved to New York in 1982 and has been my favourite show ever since. We’ve begun to assemble a terrific cast of actors here in the UK. We also have a terrific design team lined up – it’s going to be a smart and sexy production. I’m so excited about working with Amber. I loved her on Glee and when her name came up for this, I thought – Wow, I think she could be incredible – and then when she came in to audition for us, she blew us away!”

Presented in the West End by Sonia Friedman Productions (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, The Book of Mormon and Funny Girl), Sonia Friedman says of Dreamgirls: “This great, now classic American musical is coming to London at long last, and I couldn’t be more excited to confirm that Amber Riley will be joining the cast of Dreamgirls for the West End season. This new production will begin performances later this year, directed by the brilliant, multi-award winning Broadway director Casey Nicholaw. Having met Amber and having had the privilege of hearing her sing two of the iconic songs from Dreamgirls: ‘And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going’ and ‘I Am Changing’ – I was left with goosebumps, tingles and tears; I was completely knocked out by this talented performer. London is very lucky to be the first to see her Effie.”

Inspired by R&B music acts in 1960s America, Dreamgirls transports you to a revolutionary time in American music history. Dreamgirls charts the tumultuous journey of a young female singing trio, from Chicago, Illinois called ‘The Dreams’, as they learn the hard lesson that show business is as tough as it is fabulous and features the classic songs ‘And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going’, ‘I Am Changing’ and ‘One Night Only’.

Dreamgirls Logo Portrait.jpgAmerican actress and singer Amber Riley is best known for her role as ‘Mercedes Jones’ on the Golden Globe Award winning musical comedy, Glee. Additional television appearances include playing ‘Addaperle, the Good Witch of the North’ in the NBC live performance of the musical, The Wiz and competing in Dancing with the Stars, which she won in 2013. Riley’s numerous theatre credits include Alice in Wonderland, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Into the Woods and Mystery on the Docks with the Los Angeles Opera. In November 2012, she made her New York stage debut to rave reviews in New York City Center’s Duke Ellington’s Cotton Club Parade.

Olivier and Tony Award®-winning Director and Choreographer Casey Nicholaw’s West End credits include co-director of The Book of Mormon at the Prince of Wales Theatre, Disney’s Aladdin which opens in London this summer and The Drowsy Chaperone. On Broadway, credits include The Book of Mormon, Disney’s Aladdin, Something Rotten!, Elf: The Musical, The Drowsy Chaperone, Monty Python’s Spamalot. Casey’s additional New York credits include the highly acclaimed City Center Encores! productions of Anyone Can Whistle, Follies, Bye Bye Birdie and Can-Can, plus directing and choreographing the world premieres of Minsky’s at Center Theater Group in Los Angeles and Robin and the 7 Hoods at the Old Globe, San Diego. In 2016, Casey is set to direct and choreograph Tuck Everlasting on Broadway.

With book and lyrics by Tom Eyen and music by Henry Krieger, the original Broadway production of Dreamgirls, directed and choreographed by Michael Bennett opened in 1981 and subsequently won six Tony Awards®. The original cast recording won two Grammy awards for Best Musical Album and Best Vocal Performance for Jennifer Holliday’s ‘And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.’ In 2006 it was adapted into an Oscar winning motion picture starring Beyoncé Knowles, Jennifer Hudson, Eddie Murphy and Jamie Foxx.

The National Theatre Brings Us Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. TBB Review

maIs it needless to explain that the Blues is a music born out of the suffering of black folks from the deep south of north America by way of Africa?  Pain, regret, loss, anger, frustration, religion, racism, sex, survival… that’s the Blues and it’s also what’s packed into August Wilson’s classic play. Through mostly the perspective of Ma Rainey’s supporting band we are made to understand why black folk sang… had to sang the blues.

Although the title, you don’t get to see Ma Rainey’s actual black bottom. This is not a birth to death account of her life either…  ‘Black Bottom’ is a reference to a dance made popular by African Americans at the time, but you could however interpret ‘Black Bottom’ to represent the racial state of America during Rainey’s musical reign and it’s this Black Bottom that you get to see a whole lot of in this production. Directed by Dominic Cooke, like the original play, the story focuses on a day at a recording studio in Chicago 1927. The studio manager and Rainey’s agent are ready; the band is in position and rehearsing. But Ma Rainey also known as ‘Mother of The Blues’ is nowhere in sight. Rainey’s absence causes tensions to flare and festering unsaids to be spewed.

With the NT’s Lyttelton Theatre stage designed as a vast recording studio we first see Ma Rainey’s white agent, Irvin (Finbar Lyncy) and white studio manager, Sturdyvant (Stuart McQuarrie) bickering about Ma Rainey’s lateness, Ma Rainey’s ‘diva’ behaviour and the fact that they are wholly dependent financially on Ma Rainey to arrive and cut them some new records. Then, with a clever albeit slightly disjointed set adjustment we are introduced to Ma Rainey’s all male black band members, ‘Toledo’ – Lucian Msamati (A Wolf in Snakeskin Shoes, Game of Thrones), ‘Cutler’ – Clint Dyer (The Royale, SUS), ‘Slow Drag’ – Giles Terera (Muse of Fire) and ‘Levee’ – O-T Fagbenle (The Interceptor) downstairs in the rehearsal basement. It’s in this basement where the heart of the tale resides. Whilst we the audience are made to wait for Ma Rainey as everyone at the studio is waiting for her, we have no option but to be drawn into the conversations between the band members. What starts off as banter and good natured male ribbing soon dissolves into bruised egos and deep rooted hurt. Wilson has a track record of capturing the political mood of the period he wrote for and in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom with the focus on music being the metaphor for life, black musicians are the ‘leftovers’ of the white controlled Music Business Banquet…

Wilson gives this poetic philosophy regarding black people’s position in the banquet of life to Msamati’s Toldeo who presides over the rest of the band as the book smart piano player who wishes his bandmates would expand their ‘niggah’ minds to see the world for what it truly is. His thought provoking conversations with ‘us’ strike an effective chord. As all barbershop, pool hall, locker room settings, it’s in the rehearsal room the male band members shake off the pressures of having to live a life of subservience to the white man and having their futures dictated at that moment by their band Leader Ma Rainey and white employers Sturdyvant and Lyncy. With Dyer’s Cutler, whose camaraderie reminds you of your favourite uncle – just don’t piss him off, and Terera’s Slow Drag providing the neutrality of the group it’s Fagbenle’s egotistical bastard Levee who takes up the mantle of the villain. We’ve met this man before. Bitter from a destroyed past; finds joy in flaunting what little power he has be it with his looks or talent over his so called friends from who he draws strength in his perception that they are worse off than him. In this case Levee is naively brandishing his side deal with Sturdyvant over his bandmates.

(l-r) (l-r) Clint Dyer as 'Cutler',  Lucian Msamati as 'Toledo' in The National Theatre production of 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom' by August Wilson Photograph: Johan Persson

(l-r) (l-r) Clint Dyer as ‘Cutler’, Lucian Msamati as ‘Toledo’
in The National Theatre production of ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ by August Wilson
Photograph: Johan Persson

If we pull back from the story unfolding before us, those of us who are fans of Sharon D Clarke could potentially be a little underwhelmed during the first act. If you are expecting Ms Clarke, full blown vocals and lots of musical entertainment, this isn’t the play. The first act sits heavily on the shoulders of the four band members. Each of them have a tale to tell about white oppression which they use to pull each other up and beat each other down. Fighting to be king of the rehearsal room. There was a point where I was wondering how the repetitive use of the word ‘niggah’ and constant reference to ‘white crackers who don’t know how to have fun, so instead get joy from holding black people back’ was being interpreted by the predominantly white audience. Whilst we are made to wait for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom to appear, we are being forced to understand why the hell these men are so angry at the world and each other.

She finally appears in a bluster of noise and drama. After a run in with the police Ma Rainey is unapologetic that her Black Bottom is late. She is unapologetic that her cute sassy girlfriend Dussie Mae (Tamara Lawrence) is where most of her attention lays and she is unapologetic that the introduction of her stuttering nephew Sylvester endearingly played by Tunji Lucas (Gone Too Far) will upset the group’s dynamics and agendas. She just doesn’t care. Clarke’s Ma Rainey is expectedly well executed and in her comfort zone she is a pleasure to watch. Fans of Ms Clarke will however, wish you got to hear more of her voice, if only for indulgence rather than necessity. Lawrence’s Dussie Mae showcases a different and often overlooked dynamic. The opportunist ‘gold digger’ whose sexuality is as fluid as the person in the limelight’s success. Is it different being the plaything of a female superstar? Lawrence gives a solid performance as a woman who knows what she wants. Willing to be used as long as she gets to use.

(l-r) Finbar Lynch, Sharon D Clarke, Tunji Lucas and Tamara Lawrence in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom at the National Theatre (Photo: Johan Persson)

(l-r) Finbar Lynch, Sharon D Clarke, Tunji Lucas and Tamara Lawrence in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at the National Theatre (Photo: Johan Persson)

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom truly is a representation of the themes which make up the Blues, with Levee challenging the absent white God in his life as he recants a powerfully emotional childhood memory filled with bitterness and regret at his inability to save family members from the fate of weapon wielding white men. Cutler holding on desperately to his faith, violently reacting to Levee’s brazen blasphemy, only moments after his own tale of of the dancing preacher, a black man of the cloth who wasn’t protected by God from being treated just like any other n* at the hands of weapon wielding white men. Anger spews from Toledo’s bitter disappointment at the state of his African brethren lost in America usually again at the hands of weapon wielding white men. Whilst Slow Drag provides the sexual bass soundtrack to the tales of his bandmates’ woes. Ma Rainey herself is the blues personified – she understands and abuses her power turning up late, commanding, no controlling the movements of her love interest. Forcing everyone to accept her way is the only way. Her anger at how the world treats a black woman even if she is a superstar exudes through her singing her behaviour and her refusal to take direction. She’s a feminist’s dream. She also knows her ‘power’ is a myth and the reality that no matter how much she kicks off… the white men control her as much they do everything else and for that, everyone will suffer her.

Although Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a thoroughly enjoyable play. With every cast member excelling in their roles. I could find no fault nor flaw. The theme of evil white people vs. downtrodden smiling, singing, yassa massa boss-ing through the pain black folk is strenuous. The relevance is, that not much has changed. The problem is, we’re seemingly stuck in the rut. New stories and new black narratives are desperately needed.

But, the importance of this play is not to be overlooked. Wilson’s words force everyone to consider how we all learn to manage in the face of adversity oftentimes, as displayed in the dramatic and unexpected ending, to our detriment. It’s unfortunate Wilson’s play still resonates today. It is a timely production and testament to The National’s commitment to diversity on stage.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a must see.

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review of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom by Akua Gyamfi

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