Critical Evaluation

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Although August Wilson titled his play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, an alternate title might be “The Tragedy of Levee Green.” Like the great tragedies of ancient Greece, Wilson’s play obeys classical unities, as Wilson limits time to a single day, makes the recording studio the single location, and focuses action on a single recording session.

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Levee is noble and admirable in his ambition to be an independent artist and in his love and respect for his mother and father; however, Levee’s judgment is flawed because he allows the presence of evil and injustice in the world to justify his rejection of God. Sinfully proud, Levee scorns his fellow musicians and Ma Rainey, and to rise to stardom he is ready to sell his soul to the devil. Instead of ascending, Levee suffers a tragic fall when he loses his place in the band, fails to form his own band, and rashly resorts to violence. Despite these mistakes, Levee’s ruined life and his remorse make him a tragic figure worthy of pity.

The staging of Wilson’s play graphically illustrates the power relations between the characters. Sturdyvant and Irvin, the white producer and agent, are literally on top. They sit in the control room at the top of the staircase, and they have money. Below the control room is the recording studio, and in that environment, Ma Rainey rules. She decides which songs should be performed, which arrangements should be adopted, and which performers should be part of the production. At a lower level than the studio is the band room, where musicians socialize and prepare for recording sessions. Cutler, who accepts Ma’s authority, is the band leader, and Slow Drag and Toledo accept Cutler’s role. Levee, the rebel, does not accept his place in the hierarchy. When Levee challenges the others and seeks to rise beyond his rightful place, he creates a destructive disturbance. When Levee denies that God rules over all the rankings of humans, Levee challenges the natural order and shows the arrogant pride that goes before a fall.

Just as the play’s staging is symbolic of the order of its universe, several of the play’s other components act as symbols as well. The scar on Levee’s chest symbolizes the profound emotional scarring left by the rape of his mother and the lynching of his father. Green, Levee’s family name, stands for his immaturity in comparison to the maturity of other members of the band. Levee remarks that if his father had known of Levee’s trumpet, he would have named his son Gabriel, who is associated with the trumpet call for final judgment. This symbolic connection is ironic because of Levee’s disconnection from God, but his father’s choice of the name Levee rings true because the name signifies “to raise” and suggests Levee’s intention to ascend.

Though the play is serious and tragic, Wilson enlivens his work with robust humor. Except for Toledo, the musicians are illiterate, and Toledo mocks Levee by saying he cannot spell “music.” Levee bets a dollar that he can, and then he spells the word with a k at the end, insisting that he is correct. Ma Rainey’s insistence that Sylvester, a stutterer, should do the introduction for her song creates several comical moments.

While the play relies more on conversations than on plot or action, Wilson makes storytelling a powerful part of the drama. Toledo tells an entertaining story about two fellows who make a bet about the Lord’s Prayer: One man charges that the other does not know the prayer; the other, seeking to prove himself, recites the prayer incorrectly. However, the first man also does not know the prayer, believes his friend’s recitation is correct, and concedes the bet.

Slow Drag tells the story of Eliza Cottor (later spelled Cotter), the man who sold his soul to the devil and thereafter...

(The entire section contains 991 words.)

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