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...
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