Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

by August Wilson

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In Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, why do characters have unusual names and nicknames?

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In Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, characters are given unusual names and nicknames in order to convey a particular personality trait or some symbolic representation. In this play, Levee and Toledo are notable examples. Toledo is self-educated and literate, proudly aware of his African heritage. His name is the same as the Spanish city where a rich Afro-Islamic culture flourished for centuries, renowned as a diverse center of learning. And Levee, as the name suggests, is a dam waiting to violently give way.

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The reason why August Wilson gives his characters unusual names and nicknames is to tell us something about important about the character. For example, the piano player Toledo is the only member of the band who can read. It’s likely that Wilson chose this name because of its historical reference...

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to the city in Spain that was a Moorish center of learning and multicultural prosperity. Scholars in Moorish Spain preserved the Western knowledge tradition while the rest of Europe was suffering through the “Dark Ages.” The character Toledo is the play’s most philosophical and regularly tries to lecture his band-mates in order to educate them about their true history, talking about “retention memory” of African heritage.

Another character whose name relays key insights about his character is the trumpet player Levee, the male lead whose internal conflict provides much of the play’s dramatic tension and leads to its climax. It’s a significant choice firstly because the play is set in 1920’s Chicago, the emerging center for the music of migrant black Southerners, like Ma Rainey and others. “The Levee” had been the name of Chicago’s infamous red-light district, an entire neighborhood devoted to all manner of vice. The dance halls and burlesque houses of the Levee District would have been a source of employment for black musicians excluded from other environments, especially for those like Levee eager to play in the modern style. A levee is also a built-up embankment used to prevent overflow of water. When New Orleans flooded after hurricane Katrina, it’s because the levees used to keep floodwaters at bay broke. That metaphor of a forceful flood being restrained to the breaking point is certainly an apt description of Levee’s inner rage, destined to surge forth and destroy everything.

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Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is a 1982 play written by August Wilson. The play presents the African American experience throughout the 20th century. Set in Chicago in the 1920s, the play examines the themes of exploitation, art, race, and religion. The most comprehensive examination deals with the historic exploitation of black musical artists by white music producers.

Many of the characters in the band have unusual names and nicknames, which reinforces the key themes the play explores.

First, these names help promote the idea of colloquial informality. The black band speaks in a colloquial language which dramatizes the differences between the band players and the white music producers who have more traditional Anglo-Saxon names like Irvin. In essence, these names help show the differences in identity and culture between African Americans and white Americans. This also makes the audience feel that the white music producers are interchangeable while the black bandmates are uniquely important to composing and recording music.

The informal nicknames also show the relationship between the bandmates. Their relationship is based on friendship, which allows them the ability to be honest and open which each other and that’s where the best art is created. This relationship is juxtaposed with the white producers, who do not care about friendship or art; they simply care about their ability to make money off of the music.

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Nicknames are used in August Wilson’s play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom for a number of possible reasons, including the following:

  • to contribute to the play’s informal, colloquial tone
  • to help distinguish Ma and her band from the more conventionally named characters of the play
  • to help imply the relaxed familiarity of the members of the band
  • to make the informal names of the band members seem appropriate to the kind of informal language they speak. At one point, for instance, this exchange occurs between Irvin (a white man) and Cutler (an African American):

IRVIN  Where’s . . . uh . . . the horn player . . .  is he coming with Ma?

CUTLER  Levee’s supposed to be here same as we is. I reckon he’ll be here in a minute.  I can’t rightly say.

Cutler’s language is more colloquial, more regional, and more distinctive than Irvin’s.

  • to make the band members seem unpretentious and thus more appealing and more accessible to the audience
  • to help distinguish the African-American characters from the whites.

Thus, the white characters Irvin and Mel Sturdyvant have names that are far less intriguing and suggestive than those of some of the black characters.  Many of the black characters are given names that make them seem more interesting and exotic than the white characters – as if their names have been “earned” rather than merely affixed at birth.

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