Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

by August Wilson

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Critical Context (Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

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Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is the first in a cycle of plays by August Wilson that dramatize elements of black experience in each decade of the twentieth century. Other plays in the cycle are Fences (pr., pb. 1985), Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (pr. 1986, pb. 1988), and The Piano Lesson (pr. 1988, pb. 1990), all of which were developed at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Playwrights Conference and given their premieres at the Yale Repertory Theatre.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom opened on Broadway in October, 1984, to critical acclaim and won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. Fences, subsequently produced at several regional theaters, opened on Broadway in the spring of 1987 and received the Pulitzer Prize, the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, and the Drama Desk and Outer Circle Awards, as well as Tony Awards for best play and for Lloyd Richards as best director. Fences is the story of a black family during the transitional years of the 1950’s, preceding the civil rights upheaval which changed the face of history in the United States. Troy Maxson, the play’s central character, is a trashman and a former athlete who, at various times, has been a lover, a bully, a liar, and a hypocrite. He is a man with his own system of values, to which he is strongly committed, but his responses are sometimes marred by irrationality and prejudice. His suppressed rage erupts in verbal outbursts that hurt and bruise his family.

Joe Turner’s Come and Gone is based on the legendary story of Joe Turner, the brother of the governor of Tennessee, who would lure black men into crap games. He would fall upon them and force them into seven years of servitude on his plantation. This legend establishes the theme of enslavement, reinslavement, separation, and searching among a disparate group of individuals. Restlessness and disconnection permeate the lives that are dramatized in this play. What price freedom? Each character attempts to understand the nature and meaning of a newfound freedom.

The Piano Lesson (pr. 1988) is set in the 1930’s; the play centers on a family dispute over what should be done with a hand-carved piano, the only significant heirloom in the family. The brother wants to sell it, but his sister cherishes it for its historical and personal significance. Thematically, The Piano Lesson dramatizes the perennial conflict of values that pits respect for the past against hope for the future.

First and foremost, August Wilson is a poet of the theater. He is a master of delineating strong and complex characters who doggedly hold to their beliefs and prejudices. What distinguishes Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom from other plays in its genre, plays which echo similar voices against racism, self-hatred, and class exploitation, is the eclectic genius of its author. Wilson’s concerns are primarily examined through a dramatic structure that encompasses social crises and renders them visible, and in a language that adds a vital new voice to the American stage.

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Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)