Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

by August Wilson

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In Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, how do different characters try to assert power?

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In August Wilson's play Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, several of the characters, especially Ma Rainey and Levee Green but also Sturdyvant and Irvin, try to assert power. Let's examine how they do this.

Ma Rainey is a star, and she expects to be treated like one. When she arrives at the studio to record her new song, she is followed by a policeman who insists that Ma is the guilty party in a traffic accident. Ma refuses to acknowledge this at all, and Irvin pays the officer to get him to go away, showing that money talks.

Ma also insists that her music be performed her way. She has a style, and she is not open to changing it. She refuses to accept suggestions or criticism. In the end, she fires Levee, who has been trying to push his own style. Ma is in charge, and no one is going to forget it.

Levee, however, is intent upon pushing his own style. He has ambitions of gaining a record deal and a band of his own, but his prickly personality does not endear him to the other band members or to Ma Rainey. Levee asserts himself far too much, trying to appeal to Sturdyvant and even flirting with Dussie Mae, but he gets knocked down in the end. Levee then turns to violence, stabbing Toledo in frustration. With this act, he sets himself on the road to having no power at all.

Sturdyvant owns the studio, and for him power and profit go hand in hand. He will be on the side of the person who makes him the most money, and in this case, that is Ma Rainey.

Irvin actually has very little power with any of the characters, but he certainly tries to influence both Ma Rainey and Sturdyvant and to keep everyone happy. He actually sides with Levee in the case of musical style and tries to convince Ma to accept the changes, but he has no success in the matter.

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