Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was August Wilson’s first play to reach Broadway. It was an immediate critical success and won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award as the best play of the 1984-1985 season. It was the second play completed of a cycle of ten about the African American experience. Taken together, the plays present a synthesis of the modern history of African Americans. Wilson explained that his approach was to write about one important question confronting African Americans in each decade. In connection with this play, he mentioned the problem of missed possibilities, especially in regard to Levee.
Critics have focused on the problem of how African Americans can keep their cultural identity while benefiting from the marketability of its forms. The immediate and continuing success of this play, among white as well as black audiences, is an illustration of that marketability. Although the play exposes racism—some critics see this as the play’s subject—Wilson wrote it not so much in the manner of social protest literature, epitomized by Richard Wright’s novel Native Son (1940), as in the universalizing manner of Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man (1952). It seems, furthermore, that the audience that Wilson keeps most in mind is black America, particularly working-class people similar to his characters. Responding to novelist James Baldwin’s call for “profound articulation of the black tradition,” Wilson attempts to present images of strong—though fallible—black individuals and families, so as to show African Americans that their experiences, feelings, and values are instances of the common human condition. He demonstrates the ability of African American culture to provide sustaining strength for black people and suggests some directions for the future.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom differs from many plays by black authors in the 1960’s that influenced Wilson’s political and artistic consciousness as a beginning writer by being less polemical. It is like other plays of the era in featuring working-class black characters in everyday situations in which they do battle against prejudiced whites and with each other.
Wilson has been praised for his compassion and respect for life as well as for the effectiveness of both the humor and the prophetic wisdom of his plays. He described himself as writing from the zestful part of life. Critics have praised his vivid characterization, lively and authentic dialogue, and poetic qualities of language that result from his passionate attention to the speech of black people.