Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

by August Wilson

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What are the power dynamics in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom?

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There are a number of tensions and conflicts over power (or the lack thereof) in August Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. Let's look at some of them.

Ma Rainey is a star musician who likes to be in control over her band, her music, and her recording. She has certain ideas about how things should go and who should do what, and she insists that they be followed. Record producer Sturdyvant and agent Irvin usually go along with her, as do the band members, who know that Ma Rainey is their boss.

However, there is one young band member who has ideas and goals of his own. Levee Green embraces a new musical style, and he would like to have his own band and his own recording contract. He is using Ma Rainey to climb the ladder to success. The other band members are provoked by him and taunt him for sucking up to Sturdyvant just because the latter is a white man.

Levee, though, tells the band members the story of his father, who killed the white men who raped his mother and was lynched for it. Levee has always had a powerful desire to take revenge. He says that he will smile at a white man but that he will also retaliate if mistreated.

In the end, though, Levee does not get his way. Ma Rainey rejects him and fires him. Sturdyvant will not agree to Levee setting out on his own with a record deal. The frustrated Levee then pursues power the only way he has left. He stabs one of the band members, but he has gone too far and must now pay the consequences.

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