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, 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, 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, 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, who brings Ma to the recording studio to check her identity after the automobile accident and the fight with the taxi driver.
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 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...
(The entire section contains 1898 words.)
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