Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom examines the relationship between black artists and the world of mass communications in the early twentieth century. This relationship mirrors the position of black people in the society at large—a society dominated by white racism. August Wilson establishes these concerns early in the play through musical imagery and idiomatic language, using both the style and the lyrics of the blues as metaphors for African American life.
A bit of American history is indigenous to Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. In the 1920’s Gertrude (Ma) Rainey was a force in the world of “race” recordings. Between 1927 and 1929, she recorded solely for the Paramount label, including the song that gives this play its title. The recording session dramatized in the script actually occurred in Chicago; most of the details and supporting characters have been invented.
The title of the play implies that all Ma has to do is appear and claim her rights as principal protagonist. In fact, however, Ma’s testament of her struggles as an artist is overshadowed by the collective experiences of her musicians: From their dingy rehearsal space they dominate the play. There is a tragic dimension to the lives of these men that is lacking in Ma’s experience. They are not faceless images of the masses—they are as distinct in their varying philosophies and sociopolitical viewpoints as they are in their dress and musical instruments—yet they represent the countless people who never attain celebrity and whose stories largely remain untold.