The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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.

The Play

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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...

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Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

Harlem Renaissance
In 1927, when Wilson’s play takes place, the Harlem Renaissance...

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Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

Wilson’s play observes the three unities, criteria devised during the

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Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

  • 1920s: Through live performances and recordings, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Louis Armstrong help to popularize...

(The entire section is 214 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

  • Characterize the communication among the band members, Ma Rainey and her entourage, and Irvin and Sturdyvant. If you were a counselor for...

(The entire section is 328 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

  • In August Wilson: A Conversation with August Wilson, Wilson describes his role as passing down the practical and spiritual wisdom...

(The entire section is 119 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

  • Holly Hill’s essay, ‘‘Black Theater into the Mainstream,’’ which appeared in Bruce King’s collection of essays,...

(The entire section is 177 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Bogumil, Mary. Understanding August Wilson. University of South Carolina Press, 1999, pp. 15–33....

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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.”...

(The entire section is 409 words.)