Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

by August Wilson

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In Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, how do characters assert power?

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In August Wilson's play Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, several of the characters, especially Ma Rainey and Levee Green but also Sturdyvant and Irvin, try to assert power. Let's examine how they do this.

Ma Rainey is a star, and she expects to be treated like one. When she arrives at the studio to record her new song, she is followed by a policeman who insists that Ma is the guilty party in a traffic accident. Ma refuses to acknowledge this at all, and Irvin pays the officer to get him to go away, showing that money talks.

Ma also insists that her music be performed her way. She has a style, and she is not open to changing it. She refuses to accept suggestions or criticism. In the end, she fires Levee, who has been trying to push his own style. Ma is in charge, and no one is going to forget it.

Levee, however, is intent upon pushing his own style. He has ambitions of gaining a record deal and a band of his own, but his prickly personality does not endear him to the other band members or to Ma Rainey. Levee asserts himself far too much, trying to appeal to Sturdyvant and even flirting with Dussie Mae, but he gets knocked down in the end. Levee then turns to violence, stabbing Toledo in frustration. With this act, he sets himself on the road to having no power at all.

Sturdyvant owns the studio, and for him power and profit go hand in hand. He will be on the side of the person who makes him the most money, and in this case, that is Ma Rainey.

Irvin actually has very little power with any of the characters, but he certainly tries to influence both Ma Rainey and Sturdyvant and to keep everyone happy. He actually sides with Levee in the case of musical style and tries to convince Ma to accept the changes, but he has no success in the matter.

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What are the power dynamics in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom?

There are a number of tensions and conflicts over power (or the lack thereof) in August Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. Let's look at some of them.

Ma Rainey is a star musician who likes to be in control over her band, her music, and her recording. She has certain ideas about how things should go and who should do what, and she insists that they be followed. Record producer Sturdyvant and agent Irvin usually go along with her, as do the band members, who know that Ma Rainey is their boss.

However, there is one young band member who has ideas and goals of his own. Levee Green embraces a new musical style, and he would like to have his own band and his own recording contract. He is using Ma Rainey to climb the ladder to success. The other band members are provoked by him and taunt him for sucking up to Sturdyvant just because the latter is a white man.

Levee, though, tells the band members the story of his father, who killed the white men who raped his mother and was lynched for it. Levee has always had a powerful desire to take revenge. He says that he will smile at a white man but that he will also retaliate if mistreated.

In the end, though, Levee does not get his way. Ma Rainey rejects him and fires him. Sturdyvant will not agree to Levee setting out on his own with a record deal. The frustrated Levee then pursues power the only way he has left. He stabs one of the band members, but he has gone too far and must now pay the consequences.

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