Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the first of Wilson’s plays to win wide acclaim, is among his finest work. Set in a recording studio in the 1920’s, the story takes place over the course of an afternoon, as a group of musicians and the legendary blues singer Ma Rainey record several songs. Much of the play takes the form of discussions and arguments among the four musicians, each of whom brings his own perspective to questions of prejudice and the problems facing black people in American society.
Toledo, a thoughtful, serious man, speaks of racial pride and the need for self-determination. Cutler places his trust in religion. Slow Drag is uncomplicated and unwilling to question his lot too deeply. Levee believes that his musical talent will bring him respect and power. Ma Rainey is outspoken, demanding, and well aware that she will be tolerated only as long as her records make money for her white producers.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom contains many of the themes that run throughout Wilson’s subsequent work: the devastating effects of racial discrimination, the callous indifference with which white society has traditionally regarded black Americans, and the idea that the key to black self-reliance and salvation lies in developing a sense of heritage and history. The play’s central message is contained in a comment made by Toledo: “As long as the colored man looks to white folks to put the crown on what he say . . . as long...
(The entire section is 432 words.)