Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

by August Wilson

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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.

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 enjoyed impunity even though he had illicit sex and killed a man. Cutler tells the story of how Slow Drag got his name by doing the slow drag dance so well that women in Bolingbroke were mad for him. Cutler also tells the story of the Reverend Gates, who was humiliated at a railroad stop and survived only because he danced for the white men who tormented him. Of all the musicians’ stories, the most impressive is the emotional narrative told by Levee, who relates the story of his mother’s rape and his father’s lynching.

The greatest of Wilson’s accomplishments in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is his creation of an artistic work that reflects the history of African Americans. Ma Rainey (1886-1939) was a legendary blues singer who was known as the mother of the blues. She signed a recording contract with Paramount Records, and her records sold well through the mail and over the counter. Traveling from city to city by bus, she enjoyed lucrative tours and had particular success with songs such as “Moonshine Blues,” “Bo-Weevil Blues,” and “See See Rider.” Bessie Smith was Ma Rainey’s protégé.

In fictionalizing Ma Rainey, Wilson portrays her as not only a talented, dedicated, and successful blues singer but also a savvy, shrewd manager of business and interpersonal relations. Ma knows that if she is not vigilant about details, the whites will whittle down her pay, and upstart African Americans will try to seize her success for themselves.

Beyond the interpretation of Ma Rainey, Wilson depicts the circumstances of African Americans in the 1920’s. He dramatizes the problems of illiteracy, segregation, abusive police, taxi drivers, the cashing of checks, sexual attacks, terrorism, and lynching. Despite these problems, his African American characters are diverse in their dedication to music, family, and cultural heritage. As part of a ten-play sequence portraying the African American experience in each decade of the twentieth century, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is an impressive drama.

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Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)


Critical Overview