I hate to say it, but one of my biggest disappointments of the last couple of years was the revival of August Wilson’s “Fences”, a Pulitzer-winning play which seemed to win wall-to-wall raves on this side of the Atlantic. Not having seen it before, I managed to catch it on tour before the West End run. The acting – with Lenny Henry in the lead role – was uniformly good, as was the bluesy jazz score. But the piece itself left me squirming almost from the opening conversation about watermelons — fruit as over-ripe racial metaphor, you might say. The whole thing just seemed schematic, ponderous and, at times, overwrought. Were the critics intent on giving Wilson a kindly pat on the head? That was my suspicion. So I was a little hesitant about seeing “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” at the National this week, even though I’d enjoyed the original London production back in the late 1980s. Had I been taken in by the hype?
What a relief to discover that the piece — Wilson’s first Broadway hit — more than stood the test of time. Where “Fences” plodded, this one danced, the Chicago musicians sparring playfully, and then with deadly seriousness, as they wait for the stately Ma Rainey (Sharon D. Clarke) to turn up for a recording session. The first act is a marvel, and even though the plot lurches into melodrama at the close, the characters are so deftly sketched that you are willing to stick with them right to the end. (The band members can play their instruments too.) In “Fences” Wilson seemed to be working symbols rather than flesh-and-blood individuals. All the main characters in this piece were three-dimensional, burdened with their share of ambivalence and inconsistency. Ma might seem a haughty, imperious figure, but we know she is always looking for a way to maintain her dignity in a wider world which regards her as just another Negro. (There’s a layer of painful irony in the fact that she regards the North as enemy territory and can’t wait to get the session out of the way and go back to touring in the South.) She terrorizes both her white manager and the producer in charge of the session, yet we know that, ultimately, they still have the upper hand. The musicians too all have their different ways of keeping their dignity intact. In the end, though, all their speechifying and play-acting isn’t enough to carry them through. The Lyttelton is almost too cavernous a space for a play as intimate for this. Its a measure of Wilson’s skill — and Dominic Cook’s direction — that by the final scene everything seems almost unbearably claustrophobic.