For a woman who describes music as her lifeblood, surely there is no more perfect a role you could find than blues legend Ma Rainey. For Sharon D Clarke it’s a little more than just the chance to demonstrate her sensational voice as the Olivier Award-winning star is something of a fan of the August Wilson drama, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, that she will lead from next week at the National Theatre.
Having seen it an impressive six times when it made its UK premiere at the same venue back in 1989, it’s a part Clarke has been dreaming of for years, and one audiences will no doubt similarly have dreamt of seeing her in.
While we were already excited, Clarke’s thought-provoking and often truly inspirational answers to our revealing Q&A have cemented this as one of the must-see productions of the year. From jamming with the band to describing her part in the show as “walking in the footsteps of those who inspired me”, we can’t wait to see Clarke take her turn as The Mother of the Blues.
Describe your character in six words.
Talented. Independent. Straight talking. Top of her game. Trailblazing. Diva!
What attracted you to the production?
Back in ’89 this was a seminal show for me. I saw it here at the National about six times. It was my introduction to the great Bard of Pittsburgh, August Wilson. The sublime writing and wonderful cast had me hooked, and showed me that there could be strong dignified roles for black actors. I am absolutely delighted to be playing the role of Ma. Walking in the footsteps of those who inspired me and passed on the baton.
Who has been the most influential musician in your life?
There are so many, but I suppose Sarah Vaughan and Gladys Knight shaped me the most. As a woman with quite a low voice, Sarah was one of the few females that I could really sing along with. I usually sing with the guys. Gladys is my mum’s favourite (“when you get like Gladys, oh, you’ll be tops”) so I studied her. Mum thinks I’m tops now!
What has been your favourite moment in rehearsals so far?
When we had our first band jam. As the show is set in a recording studio, everybody is geared towards the music. So coming together musically just slotted in that piece of the jigsaw beautifully.
One of the last times you were at the NT you won an Olivier Award. How did it feel to receive that award?
Deep joy! Truly, I was happy to be nominated. I never expected to actually receive it.
I didn’t have a speech prepared or anything. I remember they said my name, then I was on stage but I don’t remember how I got there. God knows what jibber-ish I said. It was my fourth nomination, and my mum had said on my third that if I was nominated again she didn’t think she’d be around. I am beyond proud that she was able to be there.
What first sparked your interest in performing?
I was always singing around the house. When I was six a friend of mine said she was going to a local performing school. I asked my mum if I could go. After the first day, I was hooked. After my first performance, I knew this was what I wanted to do for life. God bless you Ivy Travers Dance School.
What is the finest performance you have ever seen?
No Child, a one-woman play set in a contemporary public school in the Bronx. It came about after George W Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. I saw it at the Edinburgh Festival in 2010. Nilaja Sun wrote and played the roles of several students, two teachers, a principal and a janitor.
She portrayed each of her characters compassionately, with lightning speed flawless transitions. The piece was extremely moving. It had us all belly laughing and then blubbing like babies. It was a real tour de force and has stayed with me.
What is your fondest childhood memory?
Sunday afternoons when my Dad would DJ and we’d dance in the front room.
Who or what has inspired you?
My mum who is a strong, fiery, independent, loving woman, and Carol Woods, who took me under her wing when I was her understudy in Blues In The Night. She mentored me and taught me how to be in this wonderful mad business.
What do you consider your big break?
Getting my Equity card on my first professional job, Southside at the Battersea Arts Centre. It made the dream a reality and set me on my path.
If you could create a fantasy production to star in, who would you cast, who would direct and what would it be?
Hello, Dolly! (in the role of Dolly of course!) with a multiracial cast, Quincy Jones arrangements, Susie McKenna directing and all my talented mates.
What do you do when you’re not performing or rehearsing?
I listen to a lot of music. I have a pile of books by my bedside. I love love love to cook. Having friends round for dinner is my idea of heaven. And I’m a mean knitter.
Do you have any regrets?
When I was younger my mum sent me for piano lessons with an old lady who, God forgive me, had hair coming out of her warts and smelled of wee. She also had about seven dogs, so the house didn’t smell too fresh. I felt icky and just couldn’t concentrate, so I stopped going. Other activities ensued and it didn’t happen.
Have you made any sacrifices for the sake of your career?
No, no sacrifices. I’m blessed.
What would you choose as a last meal?
Crispy pork belly, lobster and a long Wray & Nephew with coconut water.
What could you not be without and why?
Aside from my family, my people… My music. It’s my lifeblood.
Do you have a pre-show routine or any rituals?
No. As long as I can blast my music, I’m cool.
How would you like to be remembered?
She loved and was loved.
If you weren’t an actor, what do you think you would be?
When I entered this business I knew it could be precarious. I wanted a job that I loved just as much as performing if performing didn’t work out. Advising and listening was something that I did naturally at school. Strangers tell me their life stories on buses. So I trained as a Social Worker.