Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

by August Wilson

Start Free Trial

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom Summary

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom by August Wilson is a play about a recording session in a Chicago studio in the 1920s.

  • Ma Rainey, an African American blues singer, is recording a song with her band. Levee Green, the band's trumpeter, is eager to make his mark on the music world and plans to start his own band.
  • When Ma Rainey refuses to use Levee's new arrangement for her song, Levee becomes enraged. He tells the story of how his mother was raped by a group of white men when he was a child.
  • Tensions rise between Levee and the rest of the band, and he is fired. Enraged, Levee then stabs Toledo, the band's trombonist.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 tried to stab one, but being only a child, he lost the knife and was stabbed and scarred. Levee’s father came home and pretended to accept the sexual attack, but after he sold his land and moved his family away, he returned for vengeance. He killed four of the rapists, but before he could finish them all off, he was captured, lynched, and burned. Levee carries this memory in his heart, and he insists that he, like his father, can smile in the face of the white man yet be ready to retaliate in the boldest possible fashion for mistreatment.

Levee makes passes at Dussie Mae. Efforts to record “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” are unsuccessful because Sylvester’s speech impediment interferes with his introduction for the song; nevertheless, when Irvin suggests that the band adopt Levee’s version to expedite matters, Ma balks and demands a Coca-Cola. Ma tells Cutler that Levee is a troublemaker and instructs Cutler to be ready to dismiss Levee. In defiance of Ma, Levee continues his flirtation with Dussie Mae.

After several failures, Sylvester finally does the introduction well, but Sturdyvant soon discovers that the recording failed because the cord for Sylvester’s microphone was disconnected, perhaps by Levee. The conflict within the band grows stronger when Cutler warns Levee that his flirtation with Dussie Mae may lead Ma Rainey to fire him. Levee insists that he wants more than ordinary satisfaction in life and expresses his willingness to sell his soul to the devil.

Levee berates God, who in Levee’s eyes is a failure. He says that God does not intervene to prevent the most horrible events, and therefore God is worthless. Unable to tolerate such blasphemy, Cutler fights with Levee, but Levee draws a...

(This entire section contains 772 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

knife. To prove his point about God’s worthlessness, Levee dares Cutler to rely on God’s intervention to prevent himself from being stabbed. When the band members stay on their guard against Levee, he insists that he has proven that God fails to stop evil.

In the studio, Ma Rainey rejects Levee’s musical style. She fires Levee, and then she shrewdly manages transactions to get full payment for herself and Sylvester before she signs the forms Irvin needs. In the band room, Sturdyvant pays the musicians, but when Levee pursues his anticipated recording agreement, Sturdyvant rejects Levee as a musician and a band leader.

Levee, having lost his place in Ma Rainey’s band and his hope to be an independent musician, slips into a volatile state. When Toledo steps on Levee’s shoe, Levee loses control and stabs Toledo. Although Levee immediately regrets his rash and senseless act, he has no way to escape from its consequences.