Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

by August Wilson

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In Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, how does Sturdyvant assert power?

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In August Wilson's play Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Sturdyvant asserts his power first by insisting that Irvin keep Ma Rainey in line and later by going back on his word to Levee.

Sturdyvant is likely the owner of the record label on which Ma Rainey is doing her recording, and he does not want anyone to forget that he is in charge. He tells Irvin, Ma's manager, that he will not put up with any trouble from Ma. He is tired of her acting like she owns the studio, and he wants to put her in her place. He actually ends up giving in to Ma's demands more than once, however, because she is a star and because Sturdyvant is making good money from her recordings and does not want to lose her.

Sturdyvant is interested in Levee Green's music. Levee has given Sturdyvant some of the songs he has written, and Sturdyvant tells Levee that he wants to see him about his songs. Levee assumes that Sturdyvant is going to give him a record deal and is certain that he will become a band leader in his own right and make his own records. He says that Sturdyvant told him that.

In the end, though, Sturdyvant backtracks on Levee. He tells the young man that the songs are not right and that he will not let Levee record them. Instead, Sturdyvant offers to buy the songs from Levee. He probably intends to have other musicians record them later so he can have the full profit from them. Sturdyvant is certainly exploiting Levee, using his power to get what he wants in the way he wants it, and he probably does this to Levee, at least in part, because of his frustration over Ma's resistance and his inability to control her.

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