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 hundred dollars for the session while the producer, as she is well aware, will make much more money from the sales of her records.
The musicians, too, are well aware of their subservient situation, but, unlike Ma, they are totally vulnerable to the whims of management. Their joking and clowning around is reflected through Cutler as he relates the saga of Slow Drag and his exploits as a dancer and woman tamer. On a more serious note, he tells the story of a black minister who was stranded in a small Georgia town while...
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awaiting a train north and was bullied into dancing for some vigilante “crackers” at gunpoint. In turn, Levee, the youngest musician, relates the childhood horror of witnessing his mother being gang-raped by white men. This atrocity led to the lynching of his father, who, forced to take justice into his own hands, had killed two of the rapists.
Act 2 begins on a humorous note with Ma and her band members waiting to do yet another take on the spoken introduction to the song “Black Bottom.” Sylvester, Ma’s nephew, is unable to say the words without stammering and stuttering, thus delaying a wrap-up of the session. Irvin informs Ma that the band will have to record Levee’s version of the song because of Sylvester’s inability to speak his part. She responds that her nephew knows his part, as she has promised; if time is not taken to do the song her way, she threatens, she will leave the session and Chicago to resume her tour.
The conflict between Ma and Levee is, in part, a result of his attention to the young woman Dussie Mae, in whom Ma has some interest herself. Ma cautions Cutler to “school” Levee because “he’s got his eyes in the wrong place.” (The nature of the relationship between Ma and Dussie Mae is not spelled out, though it is implied that the attraction is sexual.) Displeased with Levee’s attitudes and his inability to take directions, Ma finally fires him during a heated argument.
The audience soon realizes how deeply Ma is affected by this environment in which she finds herself. In a conversation with Cutler, she reveals her understanding of Sturdyvant, Irvin, and the entire recording industry. Ma angrily complains about white people not caring for her as a human being, but only as a marketable commodity. “They don’t care nothing about me. All they want is my voice down on them recording machines, then it’s just like if I’d be some whore and they roll over and put their pants on.” The overpowering presence of Ma Rainey, with a singing talent second to none and a sound mind for business, provides her with the elements necessary to succeed as a black entertainer in early twentieth century America. She finally completes the recording session but refuses to sign the release form until Sylvester is paid his own twenty-five dollars, separate from her personal fee. Sturdyvant and Irvin attempt and fail to extract Sylvester’s pay from Ma’s portion.
Levee, in contrast, is unable to name his own terms in an attempt to negotiate his original music with Sturdyvant. A broad smile, servile demeanor, and shining shoes are not enough to persuade Sturdyvant—who cons Levee into accepting five dollars for each of his songs—to revert to the terms of their original deal.
The final moments of act 2 focus on Levee. His world has collapsed, his pride, self-worth, and future dreams have vanished. The collective pressures that have distorted his life are suddenly too much to bear, and a physical confrontation with Cutler ensues, resulting from Levee’s blasphemous tirade about God being created solely for the white man. In futility and rage, Levee challenges God to a knife duel. This psychotic behavior foreshadows the tragic end of the play. When Toledo accidentally steps on one of Levee’s new shoes, Levee goes over the edge. Toledo’s apology cannot stem the tide of hate and frustration that Levee feels. Toledo happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the play ends with his unpremeditated murder at the hands of Levee. The remaining musicians are left, as they arrived, in the position of having no control over their professional life. In another sense, their lives are as unfulfilled as that of Levee.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom invites the audience to share the experiences of these musicians through the devices of storytelling, poetry, and black music. The musicians’ monologues reflect an African oral tradition through which black people have for centuries transmitted their culture. For example, the figurative and rhythmic language of the blues in the “jazz” talk of these musicians has been deftly captured by the playwright. Metaphoric and literal interpretation of the text is interwoven in dialogue that moves from farcical humor through sociopolitical propaganda to melodramatic insights.
This energized dialogue provides a forum through which the audience can share the hurts, the desires, and the frustrations which the characters express through their colorful yet haunting stories. The poetic imagery that is such a vital part of the language of the blues finds a parallel in the beauty and colorful verbal presence of black colloquial language. The play’s social content overshadows the dramatic context at times, yet Wilson generally avoids broad stereotypical characters and situational clichés.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom moves from the leisurely pace of act 1 to the melodramatic violence that concludes act 2. Act 1 depends primarily on dialogue to advance the action. At the same time, the sense of waiting for something to happen that pervades the first act creates tension in the audience, preparing viewers for the climax. As the second act winds down, Ma settles her recording business with management and takes her leave; Levee is observed begging Sturdyvant to purchase and record his compositions. These seemingly unrelated and fragmented actions connect in the play’s violent climax. The tension existing between theme and action is finally objectified through the presentation of Levee as a powerless black artist and victim.
This two-act play takes place in a recording studio and its adjoining band room. The action opens with a tense conversation between the producer, Sturdyvant, and Ma Rainey’s agent, Irvin, two white men anxious because of past experiences with the imperious and unpredictable Ma Rainey. She is late, and no one knows why.
Cutler, the leader of Ma’s accompaniment band, and two other members, Toledo and Slow Drag, arrive on time and go down to the band room. They are in their mid-fifties, know each other well, and have played for many years in the South. They too express concern about avoiding the troubles of past recording sessions. Levee, another band member, arrives somewhat late, wearing a new pair of shoes. He is twenty years younger than the other musicians, and although he spent the first ten years of his life in the South, he has since lived, and learned his music, in the North.
For most of the first third of the play, largely because Levee does not want to bother with rehearsing, the four men carry on a conversation, partly for practical purposes but mostly for entertainment while waiting for Ma Rainey. Their talk rambles by free association from topic to topic, but it grows increasingly tense as a pattern emerges of conflict between the older men and Levee. Piano player Toledo and trumpeter Levee are of very different temperaments and viewpoints about life, and they frequently annoy each other. It appears to Levee that Toledo picks on him and that no one shows him the respect that he deserves, so he responds in kind. Toledo writes songs in the new style, which he believes will lift him above the authority of Sturdyvant, Ma Rainey, and musicians of the old style.
When Ma Rainey arrives, she brings immediate and potential tension in the form of her nephew, Sylvester, a young woman named Dussie Mae, and a policeman. On the way to the studio, Ma has been involved in a minor automobile accident and an altercation with a taxi driver. She immediately displays the sweep of her power in such circumstances, but it is also clear that the white men respect only each other and are humoring her.
After Irvin has paid the policeman, the band continues to converse. Tension between the men continues to build until, at the end of act 1, Levee recounts an experience from his childhood that he knows was crucial in forming his personality and outlook on life. At the age of eight, he saw a gang of white men sexually assault his mother because his father owned a piece of good farmland. He tried to defend his mother with a knife but suffered a near-fatal wound. His father moved the family and sold the land to one of those white men, smiling all the while. Soon he returned, killing four of the men before he was captured and lynched. Levee warns the other band members that he knows how hard life is, that he is determined to get what he wants, that he knows how to handle white men like Irvin and Sturdyvant, and that Cutler, Slow Drag, and Toledo had better leave him alone.
As the recording session is about to begin, Levee gets in trouble with Ma, who has already decided not to take him on her upcoming tour through Georgia. He risks more trouble for himself by complaining about Sylvester and coming on to Dussie Mae.
During a break in the session, blamed on Levee, the men in the band continue their talk, beginning with the subject of Levee and Dussie Mae. The conflict is mostly between Levee and Toledo, who tries to teach Levee something about the role of women in a man’s life. When the subject turns to the value of life, especially in the light of the history of African Americans, Levee declares that death is more real and impressive than is life, and more powerful than God, who hates black people and will not help them. Cutler feels so offended by such blasphemy that he jumps up and punches Levee. In response, Levee pulls a knife and circles Cutler, all the while challenging God to protect Cutler, concluding with the assertion that God is impotent.
The recording session goes well enough, but Ma, after arguing with Levee about his playing, fires him. Levee then suffers another blow to his self-esteem and his plans. Sturdyvant informs him that the songs that he wrote will not be recorded, although Sturdyvant, who had requested the songs, will be kind enough to buy them, and any future songs, for a very small amount of money.
As the band members, alone in the band room, are packing to leave, Toledo steps on one of Levee’s new shoes. To Levee, this gesture seems to sum up the frustration and disrespect with which the world has burdened him. He rushes at Toledo and plunges the knife into his back.
Harlem Renaissance In 1927, when Wilson’s play takes place, the Harlem Renaissance was in full swing. Black pride manifested itself across the country in art and politics. In poetry Langston Hughes Sterling Brown, and James Weldon Johnson wrote in black vernacular, using the rhythms of the blues and spirituals in their verse. Johnson’s 1927 poetry collection, God’s Trombone: Seven Negro Folk Sermons, one of the more popular works of the era, used the speech patterns of an old black preacher to capture the heart of the black idiom. Novelist Claude McKay detailed the life of working class blacks in Home to Harlem, and Jean Toomer told the story of poor southern blacks in her novel, Cane. Georgia born, Ma Rainey and blues and jazz artists such as Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, and Ethel Waters signed contracts with recording studios such as Paramount Records to cut albums to be sold in cities like Chicago, New York, and Birmingham, which had a burgeoning market of urban blacks. Frank Day, writing in his book, August Wilson, notes, ‘‘Ironically, many of these records were cut in Chicago … where they sold badly, until Bessie Smith refined the gut-bucket approach evolved by Ma.’’ Harlem speakeasies such as the Cotton Club, which served only whites, became a symbol of the erotic and the exotic appeal of the ‘‘New Negro.’’ The influence of the blues showed up in the visual arts as well, as hot colors and improvisatory compositions dominated the work of painters such as Archibald J. Motley, Jr., and Aaron Douglas, whose genre portraits of Harlem nightlife embodied the excitement and passion of the times. In his essay on the art of the Harlem Renaissance ‘‘Modern Tones,’’ Paul Gilroy notes the different responses to black music:
There was a sharp divergence between those who emphasized that black music was a folk form in transition towards varieties of high cultural expression that could demonstrate the overall worth of the race and others who saw it instead as a sophisticated urban and cosmopolitan phenomenon of an inescapably modernist type.
While white intellectuals theorized black music, the black community asserted their political strength. In the South, black students at Fisk University protested policies of the school’s white president, staging campus strikes. In the North, Oscar De Priest won election to Chicago’s First District, becoming the first black congressman ever elected from the North. By the end of the decade, blacks held one quarter of the postal service jobs in Chicago. These events contributed both to a heightened black race consciousness and to the belief that social change was possible.
1980s Wilson’s play opened in 1984, towards the end of Ronald Reagan’s first term as president of the United States. That year, Jesse Jackson, the firebrand Baptist minister and civil rights leader, finished third in the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. Though Jackson didn’t win the nomination, he did help black reformer, Harold Washington, win the Chicago mayoralty. Jackson spoke out against Reagan’s policies, both foreign and domestic, repeatedly during the 1980s, arguing that they were unfair to minorities and women. In 1987, seeking to consolidate his constituency, he formed the National Rainbow Coalition and announced his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination once again. Though Jackson failed to win the nomination, he did win five state primaries and finish second in the delegate count. Such a showing once and for all proved the might of the black voter in national politics.
Structure Wilson’s play observes the three unities, criteria devised during the Renaissance and based roughly on Aristotle’s theory of drama in his Poetics. These criteria include the unities of time, action, and place. The action of plays embodying them takes place during a single day and in a single place, and the plot clearly details the causal relationships between characters and action. Although Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom takes place over the course of a few hours in a Chicago recording studio, thereby adhering to the unities of time and place, and although one event follows another in a more or less causal order, there is not a whole lot that happens in the play. Most of the story consists of talk, frequently a character telling a story. In this way, the characters’ speech and what it says about their relationships with one another is more important than what happens, the plot. This is fairly standard fare for modern drama, which tends to be character driven in nature and more intent on delivering a single emotional impression than in detailing events.
The play also has elements of a modern tragedy, insofar as Levee’s downfall is his inability to control his pride and his rage. However, the play does not fit the conventional definition of tragedy, in that Levee is neither a courageous figure nor one who behaves in a particularly dignified manner.
Verisimilitude Wilson’s play achieves verisimilitude—the illusion of reality—through observing the unities of time and place but also through his use of vernacular dialogue. That is, his characters talk using the rhythms, speech patterns, vocabulary, and phrasing that black urban Americans of the 1920s used. This technique, which Wilson has honed to perfection over his career, helps the audience suspend their disbelief and empathize with the characters.
1920s: Through live performances and recordings, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Louis Armstrong help to popularize blues and jazz as distinctive forms of black music.
1980s: The black group Sugarhill Gang inaugurates the history of hip-hop with their single ‘‘Rapper’s Delight,’’ a multi-platinum seller and radio hit. From the Sugarhill Gang come the works of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. In the early 1980s, this group take the lead from the Gang and developed rap, integrating the sounds of a live disc jockey scratching on wax on their albums.
Today: Hip-hop and rap music, though originating from black performers, are widely embraced by white audiences and practiced by white performers such as Eminem.
1920s: The Ford Motor Company introduces the Model T and produces their 15 millionth Model A.
1980s: Worldwide earnings at Ford reach an all-time high of $5.3 billion in 1988, the highest todate for any automotive company.
Today: Ford opens new plants in Portugal, Poland, Brazil India and Russia.
1920s: Oscar De Priest, the first black congressman from the North, is elected in Chicago’s First District.
1980s: Black civil rights leader Jesse Jackson runs twice in the Democratic presidential primary, finishing third in 1984 and second in 1988.
Today: Colin Powell is the first black man appointed as United States Secretary of State.
- In August Wilson: A Conversation with August Wilson, Wilson describes his role as passing down the practical and spiritual wisdom of the African-American community in his plays and writings. He discusses the influence of black traditions like storytelling and blues music on his plays. The video, 22 minutes long, is part of the series, In Black and White: Six Profiles of African American Authors, and can be purchased from California Newsreel, 149 Ninth St., San Francisco, CA 94103.
- The Classic Blues label released The Essential Ma Rainey in 2001, a collection of Rainey’s most popular songs.
- In 1988–1989, August Wilson, Playwright was filmed by City University Television in association with the Center for Advanced Study in Theater Arts and the Harold Clurman Endowment.
Sources Bogumil, Mary. Understanding August Wilson. University of South Carolina Press, 1999, pp. 15–33.
Day, Frank. August Wilson. Twayne, 1999, pp. 39–54.
Gilroy, Paul. ‘‘Modern Tones,’’ in Rhapsodies in Black: Art of the Harlem Renaissance, edited by Richard J. Powell. University of California Press, 1997.
Herrington, Joan. i ain’t sorry for nothing i done. Limelight Editions, 1998, pp. 41–51.
Kissel, Howard. Review of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, in Women’s Wear Daily, October 12, 1984.
Pereira, Kim. August Wilson and the African-American Odyssey. University of Illinois Press, 1995.
Rich, Frank. Review of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, in New York Times, April 11, 1984, 1C.
Simon, John. ‘‘Black Bottom, Black Sheep,’’ in New York Post, October 22, 1984, p. 95.
Wilson, August. Three Plays. University of Pittsburgh Press, 1991.
Wilson, Edwin. ‘‘On Broadway: Ma Rainey,’’ in Wall Street Journal, October 16, 1984.
Further Reading Baker, Houston A., Jr. Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance. The University of Chicago Press, 1987. Baker argues that the Harlem Renaissance predates the 1920s and that its influence is still echoed in a broad spectrum of twentieth-century African-American arts.
Lieb, Sandra R. Mother of the Blues: A Study of Ma Rainey. University of Massachusetts Press, 1983. This biography is a good resource for those who want to learn more about Ma Rainey. It is well researched and contains numerous anecdotes about the singer and her circle of friends and business associates.
Nadel, Alan, ed. May All Your Fences Have Gates: Essays on the Drama of August Wilson. University of Iowa Press, 1994. Nadel collects useful critical essays on the role of issues such as gender, history, art, politics, and race in Wilson’s plays.
Shafer, Yvonne. August Wilson: A Research and Production Sourcebook. Greenwood Press, 1998. In this indispensable book, Shafer surveys Wilson’s life and work, summarizing his plays and providing critical overviews on them. Shafer also includes an exhaustive bibliography.
Shannon, Sandra. The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson. Howard University Press, 1995. Shannon details the development of Wilson’s aesthetic sensibility. Her study also includes an interview with Wilson, in which he discusses his dramatic vision.
Adell, Sandra. “Speaking of Ma Rainey / Talking about the Blues.” In May All Your Fences Have Gates: Essays on the Drama of August Wilson, edited by Alan Nadel. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1994.
Ching, Mei-Ling. “Wrestling Against History.” Theatre 19 (Summer/Fall, 1988): 70-71. The play goes beyond rigid realism by blending Christian and African cosmology in order to explain how problems and obsessions from the past must be exorcised by transforming mundane actions into allegorical rituals.
Crawford, Eileen. “The B-flat Burden: The Invisibility of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” In August Wilson: A Casebook, edited by Marilyn Elkins. New York: Garland, 1994.
Elleins, Marilyn, ed. August Wilson: A Casebook. New York: Garland, 1994.
Freedman, Samuel G. “A Voice from the Streets.” The New York Times Magazine, March 15, 1987: 36, 40, 49, 70. Sketches Wilson’s life, with comments by Wilson, revealing some sources of Wilson’s artistic attitudes and themes.
Glover, Margaret E. “Two Notes on August Wilson: The Songs of a Marked Man.” Theatre 19 (Summer/Fall, 1988): 69-70. Explores the meaning of blues music, as seen in its function in the lives of characters in Wilson’s plays, within contexts of black community and white exploitation.
Kauffmann, Stanley. Review in Saturday Review 11 (January/February, 1985): 83-85.
Leiter, Robert. Review in Hudson Review 38 (Summer, 1985): 297-300.
Nadel, Alan, ed. May All Your Fences Have Gates: Essays on the Drama of August Wilson. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1994.
Pereira, Kim. August Wilson and the African-American Odyssey. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1995.
Rich, Frank. “Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Opens.” New York Times, October 12, 1984, sec. 2, p. 4.
Savran, David, ed. “August Wilson.” In In Their Own Words: Contemporary American Playwrights. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1988.
Shafer, Yvonne. August Wilson: A Research and Production Sourcebook. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998.
Shannon, Sandra Garrett. The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1995.
Smith, Philip E. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom: Playing the Blues as Equipment for Living.” In Within the Dramatic Spectrum, edited by Karelisa V. Hartigan. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1986. Examines ways in which the play is itself a blues composition of music, repartee, and story. The play provides an understanding of persons living at a time of “failure to understand the relationship of self to history and culture.”
Wilson, August. “How to Write a Play Like August Wilson.” The New York Times, March 10, 1991, section 2, pp. 5, 17. Wilson presents his purposes in writing plays that articulate black history and its contribution to the scheme of common human values.