Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is set in late 1920’s Chicago; the action originates in the bandroom and studio of a record company. Gertrude (Ma) Rainey is due to arrive momentarily to cut new sides of 78 RPM favorites which she has previously recorded; her recordings are released by the company’s “race” division. Waiting for her are four black musicians, the white owner of the record company, and her white manager. The bandroom where the musicians are waiting is dingy and cluttered. There are a piano, a few chairs, boxes of paraphernalia, and a few old painted wooden benches. The upstairs recording studio has two levels, with another piano; on the lower level there are some high stools on a raised platform. A circular staircase leads up to the control booth. The studio and bandroom are connected by a backstage passageway.
The first act consists of monologues and small talk. The musicians engage in recalling past events in their lives. The chatter is topical, often reflective, sometimes humorous; in any case it helps to pass the time while they await Ma, lovingly referred to by her followers as the “mother of the blues.” Such tributes provoke scorn from Sturdyvant, the studio owner; he simply wishes to record the songs and end the session.
Each musician’s role provides enough material upon which to base a separate play. For example, the African nationalist among the group is the pianist, Toledo, in his late fifties, who informs the other musicians that “we done sold ourselves to the white man in order to be like him.” Cutler, also in his late fifties, is the leader and trombonist of the group; he is weary of his profession and fatalistic about life in general. Slow Drag, the bassist, is in his forties; through surface humor he masks the injuries that he has suffered as a black musician in a racist society.
The final musician to arrive for the session is Levee, a trumpeter, in his middle thirties. He is a hyper-energized man, an obsessively ambitious player-composer bent on achieving his own goals while totally disregarding the wishes of his employer, Ma Rainey. Ridiculing Ma’s style of blues singing as “jugband music,” he embraces the new “jazz dance” style that has become a craze among African Americans in the urban North. He convinces management that his swinging version of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” should replace Ma’s dated version. This conflict expands and eventually explodes after the final recording session, in which Ma accuses him of sabotaging her stylistic arrangements by adding extra musical notes and phrases.
A new energy and dynamic permeates the stage with the arrival of Ma Rainey. One of the first black singers to secure a recording contract within the “race” division of a white company, she is a star who understands the limits of the control which she briefly holds over her manager and record producer. Ma delays the recording session by insisting that someone buy her two bottles of Coca-Cola from the store. She will receive a mere two...
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