The Play (Masterplots II: Drama, Revised Edition)
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is set in late 1920’s Chicago; the action originates in the bandroom and studio of a record company. Gertrude (Ma) Rainey is due to arrive momentarily to cut new sides of 78 RPM favorites which she has previously recorded; her recordings are released by the company’s “race” division. Waiting for her are four black musicians, the white owner of the record company, and her white manager. The bandroom where the musicians are waiting is dingy and cluttered. There are a piano, a few chairs, boxes of paraphernalia, and a few old painted wooden benches. The upstairs recording studio has two levels, with another piano; on the lower level there are some high stools on a raised platform. A circular staircase leads up to the control booth. The studio and bandroom are connected by a backstage passageway.
The first act consists of monologues and small talk. The musicians engage in recalling past events in their lives. The chatter is topical, often reflective, sometimes humorous; in any case it helps to pass the time while they await Ma, lovingly referred to by her followers as the “mother of the blues.” Such tributes provoke scorn from Sturdyvant, the studio owner; he simply wishes to record the songs and end the session.
Each musician’s role provides enough material upon which to base a separate play. For example, the African nationalist among the group is the pianist, Toledo, in his late fifties, who...
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Dramatic Devices (Masterplots II: Drama, Revised Edition)
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom invites the audience to share the experiences of these musicians through the devices of storytelling, poetry, and black music. The musicians’ monologues reflect an African oral tradition through which black people have for centuries transmitted their culture. For example, the figurative and rhythmic language of the blues in the “jazz” talk of these musicians has been deftly captured by the playwright. Metaphoric and literal interpretation of the text is interwoven in dialogue that moves from farcical humor through sociopolitical propaganda to melodramatic insights.
This energized dialogue provides a forum through which the audience can share the hurts, the desires, and the frustrations which the characters express through their colorful yet haunting stories. The poetic imagery that is such a vital part of the language of the blues finds a parallel in the beauty and colorful verbal presence of black colloquial language. The play’s social content overshadows the dramatic context at times, yet Wilson generally avoids broad stereotypical characters and situational clichés.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom moves from the leisurely pace of act 1 to the melodramatic violence that concludes act 2. Act 1 depends primarily on dialogue to advance the action. At the same time, the sense of waiting for something to happen that pervades the first act creates tension in the audience, preparing viewers for the...
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The Play (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
This two-act play takes place in a recording studio and its adjoining band room. The action opens with a tense conversation between the producer, Sturdyvant, and Ma Rainey’s agent, Irvin, two white men anxious because of past experiences with the imperious and unpredictable Ma Rainey. She is late, and no one knows why.
Cutler, the leader of Ma’s accompaniment band, and two other members, Toledo and Slow Drag, arrive on time and go down to the band room. They are in their mid-fifties, know each other well, and have played for many years in the South. They too express concern about avoiding the troubles of past recording sessions. Levee, another band member, arrives somewhat late, wearing a new pair of shoes. He is twenty years younger than the other musicians, and although he spent the first ten years of his life in the South, he has since lived, and learned his music, in the North.
For most of the first third of the play, largely because Levee does not want to bother with rehearsing, the four men carry on a conversation, partly for practical purposes but mostly for entertainment while waiting for Ma Rainey. Their talk rambles by free association from topic to topic, but it grows increasingly tense as a pattern emerges of conflict between the older men and Levee. Piano player Toledo and trumpeter Levee are of very different temperaments and viewpoints about life, and they frequently annoy each other. It appears to Levee that Toledo picks on...
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In 1927, when Wilson’s play takes place, the Harlem Renaissance was in full swing. Black pride manifested itself across the country in art and politics. In poetry Langston Hughes Sterling Brown, and James Weldon Johnson wrote in black vernacular, using the rhythms of the blues and spirituals in their verse. Johnson’s 1927 poetry collection, God’s Trombone: Seven Negro Folk Sermons, one of the more popular works of the era, used the speech patterns of an old black preacher to capture the heart of the black idiom. Novelist Claude McKay detailed the life of working class blacks in Home to Harlem, and Jean Toomer told the story of poor southern blacks in her novel, Cane. Georgia born, Ma Rainey and blues and jazz artists such as Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, and Ethel Waters signed contracts with recording studios such as Paramount Records to cut albums to be sold in cities like Chicago, New York, and Birmingham, which had a burgeoning market of urban blacks. Frank Day, writing in his book, August Wilson, notes, ‘‘Ironically, many of these records were cut in Chicago … where they sold badly, until Bessie Smith refined the gut-bucket approach...
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Wilson’s play observes the three unities, criteria devised during the Renaissance and based roughly on Aristotle’s theory of drama in his Poetics. These criteria include the unities of time, action, and place. The action of plays embodying them takes place during a single day and in a single place, and the plot clearly details the causal relationships between characters and action. Although Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom takes place over the course of a few hours in a Chicago recording studio, thereby adhering to the unities of time and place, and although one event follows another in a more or less causal order, there is not a whole lot that happens in the play. Most of the story consists of talk, frequently a character telling a story. In this way, the characters’ speech and what it says about their relationships with one another is more important than what happens, the plot. This is fairly standard fare for modern drama, which tends to be character driven in nature and more intent on delivering a single emotional impression than in detailing events.
The play also has elements of a modern tragedy, insofar as Levee’s downfall is his inability to control his pride and his rage. However, the play does not fit the conventional definition of tragedy, in that Levee is neither a courageous figure nor one who...
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Compare and Contrast
- 1920s: Through live performances and recordings, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Louis Armstrong help to popularize blues and jazz as distinctive forms of black music.
1980s: The black group Sugarhill Gang inaugurates the history of hip-hop with their single ‘‘Rapper’s Delight,’’ a multi-platinum seller and radio hit. From the Sugarhill Gang come the works of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. In the early 1980s, this group take the lead from the Gang and developed rap, integrating the sounds of a live disc jockey scratching on wax on their albums.
Today: Hip-hop and rap music, though originating from black performers, are widely embraced by white audiences and practiced by white performers such as Eminem.
- 1920s: The Ford Motor Company introduces the Model T and produces their 15 millionth Model A.
1980s: Worldwide earnings at Ford reach an all-time high of $5.3 billion in 1988, the highest todate for any automotive company.
Today: Ford opens new plants in Portugal, Poland, Brazil India and Russia.
- 1920s: Oscar De Priest, the first black congressman from the North, is elected in Chicago’s First District.
1980s: Black civil rights leader Jesse Jackson runs twice in...
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Topics for Further Study
- Characterize the communication among the band members, Ma Rainey and her entourage, and Irvin and Sturdyvant. If you were a counselor for this group, charged with helping its members gain insight into the ways in which they communicate, what issues would you explore and what changes in behavior would you suggest?
- Compare Ma Rainey as a feminist figure to a feminist figure of today. Before starting, be sure to research the role of women, particularly black women in America in the 1920s.
- Each of Ma Rainey’s band members has a story to tell that embodies something representative of the black experience. Write a story that you believe is representative of the experience(s) of your gender, race, or ethnicity.
- Research the recording industry of the 1920s in the United States, paying particular attention to how working conditions for blacks and whites differed. Present your findings to your class.
- Compare white acceptance of hip-hop or rap music today with white acceptance of the blues in the 1920s. Note differences and similarities.
- Write lyrics for a blues song using any of the following subjects: lost love, infidelity, parent-child conflict, work, or disappointment. If you are musically inclined, put your lyrics to a song and perform it for your class.
- With at least three other classmates, listen to Ma Rainey’s album, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Then write an essay...
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- In August Wilson: A Conversation with August Wilson, Wilson describes his role as passing down the practical and spiritual wisdom of the African-American community in his plays and writings. He discusses the influence of black traditions like storytelling and blues music on his plays. The video, 22 minutes long, is part of the series, In Black and White: Six Profiles of African American Authors, and can be purchased from California Newsreel, 149 Ninth St., San Francisco, CA 94103.
- The Classic Blues label released The Essential Ma Rainey in 2001, a collection of Rainey’s most popular songs.
- In 1988–1989, August Wilson, Playwright was filmed by City University Television in association with the Center for Advanced Study in Theater Arts and the Harold Clurman Endowment.
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What Do I Read Next?
- Holly Hill’s essay, ‘‘Black Theater into the Mainstream,’’ which appeared in Bruce King’s collection of essays, Contemporary American Theater, examines tensions among blacks in Wilson’s plays.
- After opening on Broadway in 1987, Wilson’s play, Fences, won a Pulitzer Prize, a Tony Award, a New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award, an American Theater Critics’ Association Award, a Drama Desk Award, and the Outer Critics’ Circle Award. Fences explores the relationships between husband and wife, father and son, two lovers and two friends.
- Wilson’s play, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, tells the story of Harold Loomis who, while searching for his wife in Pittsburgh, is haunted by the memory of being illegally enslaved by bounty hunter Joe Thomas in 1917. The play opened at the Yale Repertory Theatre in late 1986 and won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award.
- Carla McDonough’s intriguing book, Staging Masculinity: Male Identity in Contemporary American Drama (1997), provides a sociological reading of Wilson’s plays, focusing on the subjects of crime, guns, and work among his urban black male characters.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Bogumil, Mary. Understanding August Wilson. University of South Carolina Press, 1999, pp. 15–33.
Day, Frank. August Wilson. Twayne, 1999, pp. 39–54.
Gilroy, Paul. ‘‘Modern Tones,’’ in Rhapsodies in Black: Art of the Harlem Renaissance, edited by Richard J. Powell. University of California Press, 1997.
Herrington, Joan. i ain’t sorry for nothing i done. Limelight Editions, 1998, pp. 41–51.
Kissel, Howard. Review of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, in Women’s Wear Daily, October 12, 1984.
Pereira, Kim. August Wilson and the African-American Odyssey. University of Illinois Press, 1995.
Rich, Frank. Review of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, in New York Times, April 11, 1984, 1C.
Simon, John. ‘‘Black Bottom, Black Sheep,’’ in New York Post, October 22, 1984, p. 95.
Wilson, August. Three Plays. University of Pittsburgh Press, 1991.
Wilson, Edwin. ‘‘On Broadway: Ma Rainey,’’ in Wall Street Journal, October 16, 1984.
Baker, Houston A., Jr. Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance. The University of Chicago Press, 1987. Baker argues that the Harlem Renaissance predates the 1920s and that its...
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Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Adell, Sandra. “Speaking of Ma Rainey / Talking about the Blues.” In May All Your Fences Have Gates: Essays on the Drama of August Wilson, edited by Alan Nadel. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1994.
Ching, Mei-Ling. “Wrestling Against History.” Theatre 19 (Summer/Fall, 1988): 70-71. The play goes beyond rigid realism by blending Christian and African cosmology in order to explain how problems and obsessions from the past must be exorcised by transforming mundane actions into allegorical rituals.
Crawford, Eileen. “The B-flat Burden: The Invisibility of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” In August Wilson: A Casebook, edited by Marilyn Elkins. New York: Garland, 1994.
Elleins, Marilyn, ed. August Wilson: A Casebook. New York: Garland, 1994.
Freedman, Samuel G. “A Voice from the Streets.” The New York Times Magazine, March 15, 1987: 36, 40, 49, 70. Sketches Wilson’s life, with comments by Wilson, revealing some sources of Wilson’s artistic attitudes and themes.
Glover, Margaret E. “Two Notes on August Wilson: The Songs of a Marked Man.” Theatre 19 (Summer/Fall, 1988): 69-70. Explores the meaning of blues music, as seen in its function in the lives of characters in Wilson’s plays, within contexts of black...
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