Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

by August Wilson

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Characters Discussed

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 573


Levee, the trumpet player in the band of black musicians that accompanies blues singer Ma Rainey. Not well educated but stylish, flamboyant, brash, energetic, and ambitious, Levee is in his early thirties and is the youngest of the musicians. Scorning the conservative musical style favored by Ma Rainey, Levee plays in a new, improvisational jazz style and dreams about forming his own band. He offers his own arrangements and songs to Sturdyvant, the white owner of the run-down Chicago recording studio, but Ma insists on her own arrangements. Anxious to please Sturdyvant but insistent that he is not cowed by whites, Levee is a study in growing anger and frustration, quarreling constantly with Ma and the rest of his fellow musicians during the recording session that constitutes the action of the play. Levee’s frustration culminates in his fatal stabbing of Toledo, another member of the band.

Ma Rainey

Ma Rainey, the most popular black blues singer of her day, called the Mother of the Blues. A short, heavy woman, dressed opulently in a full-length fur coat, matching hat, emerald-green dress, matching headband, and several strands of pearls, Ma carries herself with a royal air, but, like any black person in Chicago in the 1920’s, she is a second-class citizen. She is unable, for example, to get a white cab driver to take her to the recording studio. Consciously playing the prima donna, she makes arbitrary demands of her white manager and the white studio owner as a way of compensating for her ultimate powerlessness. She appears unaware that her style of music is falling out of favor.


Toledo, the band’s piano player and the only member of the band who can read. In his middle fifties, Toledo is self-taught and the most educated and philosophical of the musicians. He lectures the confused and apathetic band members on African history.


Sturdyvant, the white owner of the recording studio, concerned mainly with profit and insensitive to black performers, preferring to deal with them as little as possible.


Irvin, Ma Rainey’s white manager, tall, corpulent, and proud of his knowledge of and ability to deal with African Americans. Irvin attempts to keep Ma and Sturdyvant satisfied at the same time but usually fails to satisfy either one.


Cutler, the leader of the band, the guitar and trombone player, and the most sensible of the musicians. In his middle fifties, Cutler is cautious and even unimaginative personally and musically. He is not introspective but tries at all times to defuse hostilities and keep everyone’s attention on the business at hand.

Slow Drag

Slow Drag, the bass player in the band, in his middle fifties, deceptively intelligent but bored by life. Sporting a large, wicked smile, Slow Drag plays with startling ease, gracefully incorporating underlying African rhythms in his music.

Dussie Mae

Dussie Mae, Ma’s lesbian lover, a young, dark-skinned, sensual black woman, dressed provocatively in a fur jacket and a skin-tight canary-yellow dress.


Sylvester, Ma’s nephew, a huge, black Arkansas country boy. Dressed uncomfortably in a new suit and coat, Sylvester stutters in almost every sentence he speaks. Ma has brought him to the recording session to do the voice introduction to her song, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”

A policeman

A policeman, who brings Ma to the recording studio to check her identity after the automobile accident and the fight with the taxi driver.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1325

Sylvester Brown Ma introduces Sylvester as her nephew. He is young and built like an ‘‘Arkansas fullback,’’ and he stutters. He was the driver during the car...

(This entire section contains 1325 words.)

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accident, but Ma absolves him of blame. Ma insists that he introduce her song, ‘‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,’’ even though he stutters. Critics have raised the possibility that perhaps Sylvester is Ma’s lover, rather than her nephew, and that Sylvester’s sniping with Dussie Mae reflects competition for her affection and attention.

Cutler Cutler is the guitar and trombone player and leader of the instrumentalists. He is in his mid-fifties and, Wilson writes, ‘‘has all the qualities of a loner except the introspection.’’ He plays the music straight, with no embellishment. During the session, he smokes reefer (marijuana). Cutler’s story about Reverend Gates being humiliated by a gang of white men illustrates his attitude that black men have to do what’s necessary to survive.

Dussie Mae Dussie Mae is Ma Rainey’s beautiful girl (her lover). She is a ‘‘young, dark-skinned woman whose greatest asset is the sensual energy which seems to flow from her.’’ Dussie Mae wears a fur jacket and a tight-fitting yellow dress. She is deferent to Ma Rainey, but when she is alone with Levee, she kisses him and tells him that she’ll be his woman when (if) he gets his band together.

Irvin Irvin is Ma Rainey's white agent, who is ‘‘a tall, fleshy man who prides himself on his knowledge of blacks and his ability to deal with them.’’ Most of his energy is spent placating Ma Rainey and Sturdyvant. He solves Ma's issue with the policeman by bribing him to make it go away. Although he seems comfortable communicating with the band and with Ma Rainey, he is chiefly motivated by money.

Levee Levee is the talented, temperamental trumpet player, and, in his early thirties, the youngest player in the band. He prides himself on his appearance, especially his shoes, which he bought with money won from Cutler at craps. Levee wants to put a band together and record his own songs, and he tells other band members that Sturdyvant said he would help him do this. Levee’s version of ‘‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’’ is faster, more of a swing song than a blues number. Levee is frustrated and bitter and argues with all of the band members; he also attempts to seduce Dussie Mae. Like the other band members, Levee has a story about his past that illuminates his present relationships with both blacks and whites. When he was a child, he witnessed his mother being raped by a gang of white men. He tried to stop the men but was seriously injured after being struck with a knife by one of the men. His father subsequently sold their farm to one of the men who raped his wife, settled his family in another town, and then returned for vengeance. He killed four of the men before being killed himself. Levee’s anger reaches a fevered pitch at the end of the play, when Sturdyvant won’t let him record the songs he previously told him he could. Levee winds up stabbing Toledo, killing him, after Toledo steps on his shoe.

Policeman The policeman is the third white man in the play. He enters with Ma Rainey, Sylvester, and Dussie Mae and engages in a shouting match with them to tell Irvin the story of Ma’s automobile accident. Eventually, he is satisfied that Rainey is ‘‘as important as she says she is’’ and takes money from Irvin to forget the incident and not take Ma to jail.

Ma Rainey Wilson’s Ma Rainey is based on the historical Ma Rainey, widely considered to be the Mother of the Blues because of her influence on other female blues singers. Born Gertrude Pridgett in Columbus, Georgia, in 1886 to parents who were minstrel performers, Rainey first appeared onstage in 1900. She toured with William ‘‘Pa’’ Rainey, a minstrel song and dance man whom she married in 1904, and with groups such as Tolliver’s Circus and Musical Extravaganza. Rainey signed a recording contract with the ‘‘race division’’ of Paramount Records in 1923, when she was thirty-eight years old. Her recording career ended in 1928, after she had recorded some one hundred songs, many of them classics today. Rainey is rumored to have coached a young Bessie Smith in singing the blues, and she played with jazz musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Tommy Ladnier, Coleman Hawkins, and Buster Bailey. Rainey died in 1939.

In Wilson’s play, Rainey is the bandleader and has the final say in recording decisions. Rainey has no illusions about her relationship with her agent, Irvin, or Sturdyvant, the producer, recognizing that they cater to her only because she can make them money. She tells Cutler, the bandleader: ‘‘They don’t care nothing about me. All they want is my voice. Well, I done learned that, and they gonna treat me like I want to be treated no matter how much it hurt them.’’ Rainey’s petty demands, however, often make her appear as a prima donna. She won’t sing without her Coca-Cola, for example, and she insists on having her ‘‘nephew,’’ Sylvester, a stutterer, do the introduction to one of her songs. Rainey recognizes the band members for what they are. She praises Slow Drag’s bass playing and warns Levee numerous times to behave himself, before she finally fires him. Rainey travels with both Sylvester, whom she calls her ‘‘nephew,’’ and her lover, Dussie Mae.

Slow Drag In his mid-fifties, Slow Drag is the slow moving but talented bass player. Like Cutler, he is a professional who is focused on his music, always giving each take his best effort. Slow Drag’s name stems from an incident in which he slow danced with a woman in an endurance contest for money. Critic Mary Bogumil writes that Slow Drag’s playing ‘‘reflects the fundamental rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic nuances found in African music. His style of play could be characterized as an Americanized version of the African.’’

Mel Sturdyvant Sturdyvant is the overworked white owner of the recording studio and Ma Rainey’s producer, a penny-pinching tightwad concerned exclusively with money. Uncomfortable dealing with black performers, Sturdyvant communicates primarily with and through Irvin. Sturdyvant repeatedly tells Irvin throughout the play that he is responsible for Ma Rainey, saying, ‘‘She’s your responsibility. I’m not putting up with any Royal Highness … Queen of the Blues bull——!’’ Representing white exploitation of black labor, Sturdyvant promises Levee throughout the play that he will be able to record his own music, but at the end of the play, he changes his mind, telling him that his songs aren’t what people want. Sturdyvant offers to buy Levee’s songs from him for five dollars a piece, acting as if he’s doing Levee a favor. The reason for his change of mind is unclear. Maybe he feels uncomfortable backing Levee against Ma, or maybe he’s just more comfortable with the established rather than the new.

Toledo Toledo is the literate piano player and the most reflective of the band members. As a musician ‘‘in control of his instrument, he understands and recognizes that its limitations are an extension of himself.’’ Kim Pereira writes, ‘‘To Toledo, style is indistinguishable from content; it is a manifestation in the artist’s fidelity to the main musical idea or theme, whatever his improvisations.’’ Toledo discusses abstract concepts such as racial memory and the plight of the black man, but he frequently misapplies his knowledge. When he attempts to make a philosophical point through storytelling, Levee takes him literally rather than figuratively.

Toledo has lost his wife and children to divorce, telling band members that his wife left him for the church. At the end of the play, Levee kills Toledo instead of Sturdyvant, the person who had wronged him the most.




Critical Essays