August Wilson's Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, his first play in a ten-play cycle, each chronicling a decade in the African-American experience, was first performed at the Yale Repertory Theater in 1984, though Wilson began writing the play in 1976, after listening to the blues for more than a decade. Set in a Chicago recording studio in 1927, the two-act drama tells the story of a recording session with blues legend Ma Rainey, her band members, and the white producer and agent who made themselves wealthy through Rainey’s recordings. The play explores race relations between blacks and whites in 1920s America and the African-American search for identity. The title comes from the song of the same name, which is at the heart of a major conflict in the play. Of particular note is Wilson’s character, Levee, who literally embodies the aspirations and disappointments of black males during this era and, arguably, today. Wilson pits Levee against Rainey, the band members, and the whites, examining various stripes of inter- and intra-racial conflict.
Partly inspired by the plays of Amiri Baraka who warned black writers to keep their characters faithful to the black experience, Wilson finished the first version of the play in 1981 and had it accepted by the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Playwrights Conference in the summer of 1982. In 1985, the play opened on Broadway at the Cort Theater, and it subsequently captured a slew of awards, including the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for best American play. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is considered Wilson’s first major play and helped to cement his reputation as an important American playwright.