‘Oh, I’ve got news for you, Baby,
That I’ve made plans for two.
I guess I’m just a stubborn kind of fellow.
Got my mind made up to love you.’
Stubborn Kind of Fellow/ Marvin Gaye (Stevenson/Gaye/Gordy)
I recently saw an excellent production of the August Wilson play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (which runs at The National Theatre in London until 18 May). Through a ten-play cycle Wilson, who passed away in 2005, sought to document the African American experience. He wrote one play for each decade of the twentieth century. It’s a titanic achievement and surely one day a major British theatre company will stage all ten.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is set in Chicago in 1927. It considers the lives of a group of black musicians for whom slavery is a recent memory and discrimination is a current reality. Ma Rainey, the ‘Mother of the Blues,’ is booked into a studio to record, amongst other material, her signature tune, Black Bottom. Rainey is tough, imperious, defiant. Through years of bitter experience she has learned to stand up to the threats and enticements of corporate white America. Her manager and producer are eager for her to evolve her blues sound to accommodate the growing public enthusiasm for jazz rhythms. And they have an ally in the ambitious young dandy of a trumpet player, Levee, who has written a more jazz-inflected arrangement of Rainey’s tune.
Our sympathies are naturally with Rainey. We applaud her dogged determination, her inflexible insistence on doing her song her way. We want her to win.
Maybe we always side with the stubborn ones. We admire the independent voice, the tenacious spirit. Our cultural history is crammed with heroic tales of single-minded artists taking on the reactionary establishment, the carping critics, the fickle public.
So we applaud Ginger Rogers when she insists on wearing her ostrich feather dress for Cheek to Cheek, despite the protestations of Fred Astaire, who found the wayward plumes distracting.
We delight in the rigidity of Samuel Beckett’s stage directions, which preclude any new director’s interpretations of his work.
We cheer when we hear how Shostakovitch responded to critics’ comments as he was finalising his Leningrad Symphony:
‘I take them under consideration, but not into practice.’
But are we right to side with Rainey? Perhaps her producer and manager are just thinking about money. But Levee clearly has artistic, as well as selfish motives, to adapt her piece. And why not sympathise with the audience’s appetite for change, freshness and innovation?
Is the accommodation of public opinion and preference inherently wrong? Shouldn’t any creative endeavour evolve and transform in tune with times and tastes?
I suspect that, whilst we celebrate romantic yarns of artistic integrity and defiance in the face of feedback, most of us in the commercial sector are engaged in more nuanced, calibrated calculations. Indeed the navigation of different dynamics and tensions is at the heart of commercial creativity. We’re not pursuing ‘art for art’s sake.’ We have attitudinal, behavioural and financial goals. For us creativity is not an end in itself. It is a strategy for achieving effectiveness.
In my experience the best Creative Directors and Strategists know when to be stubborn with an idea; when to stay with it, despite dissenting opinion and challenging research. But they can also judge when to back off; when cumulative evidence or circumstances prevent progress. Sometimes they evolve and adapt a concept to accommodate the external point of view. And sometimes they can switch effortlessly from single-minded passion to starting all over again.
Fundamentally we need to learn when to stick and when to twist. It’s not a science. It’s a skill.
‘You notice how in winter-floods the trees which bend before the storm preserve their twigs. The ones which stand against it are destroyed, root and branch.’
Haemon to his father Creon in Sophocles’ Antigone
In many ways Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a joyous, funny, inspiring play. But there’s also a note of sadness hanging over proceedings, as the whole cast variously reflect on their experiences of prejudice, failure and loss. As the wise pianist, Toledo, says of his own disappointments:
‘Gonna be foolish again. But I ain’t never been the same fool twice.’