(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the first of Wilson’s plays to win wide acclaim, is among his finest work. Set in a recording studio in the 1920’s, the story takes place over the course of an afternoon, as a group of musicians and the legendary blues singer Ma Rainey record several songs. Much of the play takes the form of discussions and arguments among the four musicians, each of whom brings his own perspective to questions of prejudice and the problems facing black people in American society.

Toledo, a thoughtful, serious man, speaks of racial pride and the need for self-determination. Cutler places his trust in religion. Slow Drag is uncomplicated and unwilling to question his lot too deeply. Levee believes that his musical talent will bring him respect and power. Ma Rainey is outspoken, demanding, and well aware that she will be tolerated only as long as her records make money for her white producers.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom contains many of the themes that run throughout Wilson’s subsequent work: the devastating effects of racial discrimination, the callous indifference with which white society has traditionally regarded black Americans, and the idea that the key to black self-reliance and salvation lies in developing a sense of heritage and history. The play’s central message is contained in a comment made by Toledo: “As long as the colored man looks to white folks to put the crown on what he say . . . as long...

(The entire section is 432 words.)


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Set in 1927 in a Chicago recording studio, August Wilson’s play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, explores the values and attitudes toward life and music of the classic blues singer, Ma Rainey. Their economic exploitation as African American musicians in a white-controlled recording industry, as well as their inferior social status in the majority white culture, become evident in the play’s dialogue and action. As Ma Rainey puts it: “If you colored and can make them some money, then you all right with them. Otherwise, you just a dog in the alley.”

For Rainey, the blues is “a way of understanding life” that gives folks a sense they are not alone: “This be an empty world without the blues.” As such, the blues has been a source of strength for African Americans, and performers like Ma Rainey have been bearers of cultural identity. A major theme of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and of other plays by Wilson is the necessity of acknowledging one’s past and connecting with one’s culture.

African American identity, however, with its roots in Africa and the rural South, is at times rejected by the members of Ma Rainey’s band. The pianist, Toledo, for example, points out the “ancestral retention” involved in the bass player’s trying to get some marijuana from another band member by naming things they have done together—in effect, an African appeal to a bond of kinship. Toledo’s observation is immediately rejected by the bass player, who replies: “I ain’t no African!” and by Levee, the trumpet player, who remarks: “You don’t see me running around in no jungle with no bone between my nose.” Levee also has a loathing for the South, which he associates with sharecropping and general backwardness. Levee’s disregard for African American heritage extends to Ma Rainey’s style of blues, which he calls “old jug-band s**t.” He resents her refusal to use his jazzed-up arrangements and, at the tragic end of the play, when his hopes for a recording contract of his own are dashed, his rage is misdirected at Toledo, who happens to step on his shoe, and whom he stabs with his knife.


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Sturdyvant, a record producer, and Irvin, Ma Rainey’s agent, are in a recording studio, discussing arrangements for the day’s recording session with Ma Rainey. Sturdyvant wants the session to go smoothly, and Irvin assures the producer that all is under control. The band members arrive and begin to prepare for the session. Levee Green, the young trumpeter, expresses his delight with his new shoes and his distaste for the old shoes of his fellow musicians. Cutler, Slow Drag, and Toledo show their maturity by recognizing Ma Rainey as their boss, but Levee insists that he is an artist, composer, and bandleader dedicated to a new and better style. He does not favor the old style of Ma Rainey. Levee plans to work with Sturdyvant to form a new band and record his own compositions.

Ma Rainey enters with much fanfare. Accompanying her are her nephew Sylvester and her companion, Dussie Mae. A policeman follows the trio, and he insists that Ma Rainey is responsible for a traffic accident and an altercation with a cab driver. To get circumstances under control, Irvin pays off the policeman, who leaves.

A conflict develops about the musical arrangement for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Levee and Irvin want to use Levee’s new arrangement, but Ma will not cooperate. She insists that Sylvester, despite his stuttering, will do a voice introduction, and she frustrates Levee when she prevails in the argument.

Though overruled in this artistic decision, Levee still aspires to have his own band and strives to win Sturdyvant’s favor. The other musicians take note of this behavior and taunt Levee, charging that he, like the rest of them, is bowing to the white man’s authority. Provoked, Levee denies the charge and recounts a story to disprove the accusation.

When Levee was eight, his mother was raped in his presence by a group of white men. Levee...

(The entire section is 772 words.)