In August Wilson's play Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, why are various characters given unusual names, including nicknames?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Nicknames are used in August Wilson’s play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom for a number of possible reasons, including the following:

  • to contribute to the play’s informal, colloquial tone
  • to help distinguish Ma and her band from the more conventionally named characters of the play
  • to help imply the relaxed familiarity of the members of the band
  • to make the informal names of the band members seem appropriate to the kind of informal language they speak. At one point, for instance, this exchange occurs between Irvin (a white man) and Cutler (an African American):

IRVIN  Where’s . . . uh . . . the horn player . . .  is he coming with Ma?

CUTLER  Levee’s supposed to be here same as we is. I reckon he’ll be here in a minute.  I can’t rightly say.

Cutler’s language is more colloquial, more regional, and more distinctive than Irvin’s.

  • to make the band members seem unpretentious and thus more appealing and more accessible to the audience
  • to help distinguish the African-American characters from the whites.

Thus, the white characters Irvin and Mel Sturdyvant have names that are far less intriguing and suggestive than those of some of the black characters.  Many of the black characters are given names that make them seem more interesting and exotic than the white characters – as if their names have been “earned” rather than merely affixed at birth.

 

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