Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 252

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom examines the relationship between black artists and the world of mass communications in the early twentieth century. This relationship mirrors the position of black people in the society at large—a society dominated by white racism. August Wilson establishes these concerns early in the play through musical...

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Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom examines the relationship between black artists and the world of mass communications in the early twentieth century. This relationship mirrors the position of black people in the society at large—a society dominated by white racism. August Wilson establishes these concerns early in the play through musical imagery and idiomatic language, using both the style and the lyrics of the blues as metaphors for African American life.

A bit of American history is indigenous to Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. In the 1920’s Gertrude (Ma) Rainey was a force in the world of “race” recordings. Between 1927 and 1929, she recorded solely for the Paramount label, including the song that gives this play its title. The recording session dramatized in the script actually occurred in Chicago; most of the details and supporting characters have been invented.

The title of the play implies that all Ma has to do is appear and claim her rights as principal protagonist. In fact, however, Ma’s testament of her struggles as an artist is overshadowed by the collective experiences of her musicians: From their dingy rehearsal space they dominate the play. There is a tragic dimension to the lives of these men that is lacking in Ma’s experience. They are not faceless images of the masses—they are as distinct in their varying philosophies and sociopolitical viewpoints as they are in their dress and musical instruments—yet they represent the countless people who never attain celebrity and whose stories largely remain untold.

Themes and Meanings

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This play presents a representative incident that illustrates and interprets a crucial episode in the history of the African American people: the migration from the southern farms of their origin to the northern industrial cities; their emergence into modern life, with resulting transformation and spiritual crisis. It is a story of old ways and new ways, with themes of racism and human suffering. The action of the play takes place on the threshold between old and new, and it is appropriately charged with tension and conflict. The conflicts are not resolved during the play, and the play does not end hopefully. The conflicts include those between old and new, white and black people, northern urban innovation and southern tradition, young persons and old, ownership and labor, book learning (print) and folk wisdom (oral), backwoods stomp dance parties and electronic mass media, and community cohesion and individualism. At stake are survival, wisdom, and the opportunity for a good life.

Even the setting of the play reflects dualism and threshold in its division of playing space into a ground-level room for the recording session and a basement room for rehearsal. The audience sees only one room at any time. No white character enters the band room.

The contrasts and conflicts show up in the interactions between characters, notably between Ma Rainey and Sturdyvant and between Toledo and Levee. Sturdyvant, representing the interests of sales and new capital, feels no respect for Ma Rainey, her music, or her musicians. He values them only if he can use them for profit. His control over them is limited only by the extent to which he must placate Ma until she has signed release papers. Ma resists by refusing to cooperate unless he accedes to her wishes and recognizes her stardom.

Blues music is the fulcrum upon which the polarized forces balance. It provides the play with a title, a focus for the dramatic situation, and a vehicle for the themes. It is the glue that binds the characters together and the knife that slices them apart. The audience not only hears talk about this music but also hears the music itself, in fragments or in full song, in conflicting thematic styles, sung and played in spontaneous expression of individual and communal agony and wisdom or performed for impersonal mass distribution, traditional songs or songs in the very process of being composed.

In life and in the play, the evolution of this music participates in, parallels, and expresses the pattern of African American history. Ma Rainey is known as “Mother of the Blues” because she gave it birth as a universally recognized African American art form. She knows, however, that the blues existed before her. She knows, as her white contemporaries do not, that the blues carry so much power of meaning because they are “life’s way of talking.” She explains to Cutler that “you don’t sing because you feel better. You sing ’cause that’s a way of understanding life.” Cutler adds that with such understanding you have “a grip on life to where you can hold your head up and go on to see what else life got to offer.” The two agree that with her singing Ma fills an empty world with something that people cannot do without.

Ma’s style of singing expresses the viewpoint and values of the black South, in the oral culture of its rural folk tradition: efficacious talk; storytelling; music and dance that feature adherence to a comparatively simple, passed-down performance style; a tightly knit community that provides the basis for hierarchy and clear understanding of where each individual fits; reverence for fertility and harvest; and a just and merciful God who knows the value of the rich, black, river-bottom land that He created and who cares for His black people, who are on the bottom of the American socioeconomic scale.

The blues of the time stood on the threshold of becoming jazz. Jazz represents a somewhat different way of living and of understanding life, playing old songs in a new way and even composing new songs for the new way. In the fluid world of the North, Levee knows no authority but himself and the potential popularity of his music. He has seen the authority of the white man, having witnessed the brute force on which it is based, but he cannot respect it and believes that he can successfully resist and manipulate it. Cutting himself off from traditional community, he tries to make a virtue of being himself. He does not want to waste time in rehearsal. Caring only about himself, he is willing to sell his soul to the devil in return for success.

The older men, doing their best to make their own adjustments to changing times and believing Levee to be an upstart fool, pressure him to return to the old ways of music, communal identity, and religious belief. They cajole him and order him to conform to what they see as reality. Toledo in particular tries to teach Levee by sharing ideas that he has gleaned from his reading about African culture and the need for African Americans to know the historical forces that determine their position in American society. The men appeal to Levee indirectly, in the African and African American way of talking around a subject, with verbal sparring, wit, snatches of blues lyrics, and rich, exemplifying stories.

Outside the artistry of his music, Levee understands and respects only the most literal of possible meanings in what he hears or sees. It is as if the knife that slashed across his eight-year-old breast shone a light into his mind that blinded him to all but the most straightforward but superficial of meanings. He intends to take what life owes him, what death and the devil have promised, at whatever the cost. He believes himself to be the wave of the future, “the New Negro” of the 1920’s. As he puts it, “I’ve got time coming to me.” He is not completely wrong. Ma Rainey, after all, “listens to her heart . . . listens to the voice inside her,” and Levee plays the music the way he feels it. When his musical expression is taken from him, his confused feelings overwhelm him, and he betrays his own. His striking out at Toledo is akin to stabbing his people and himself in the back.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 395

Power
The dramatic question in the play is whether the band will complete the recording session despite conflicts among various band members and the power struggles between Rainey and Sturdyvant. The battle of wills between Rainey and Sturdyvant echoes the historical battle between capitalists and workers; only in this case, Rainey holds on to the goods (i.e., her music) that she produces until she gets what she wants from the white producer. It is only after her demands are met and she and her band members are paid that Rainey signs off on the contract. The power struggle between Levee and the other band members over whose version of ‘‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’’ is recorded reflects a generational conflict defined by different attitudes towards music. Rainey and the band represent the older generation, preferring to play the song as they always have. Levee, the youngest band member, represents the new order, preferring a more improvisatory, jazz-like version of the song.

The Great Migration
In American history, 1915 to 1960 is often referred to as the Great Migration, to signify the millions of blacks who moved from the agricultural South to the industrialized North in search of work and a better way of life. The band members and Ma Rainey herself were part of this migration, and the music industry represented for them the hope for a more prosperous future. Finding work, however, especially in an environment rife with racism, was difficult, and the blues was a way through which blacks expressed their disappointment and struggle.

Black Identity
The band members engage in a process of self-definition through their storytelling and their interactions among themselves and with Sturdyvant and Irvin. Each band member’s story tells readers something about him while also forming a theme of the blues. Toledo defines himself through his ability to read (he is the only literate band member) and through his failed relationships with women. Levee defines himself through his appearance, of which his shoes are a central symbol, through his womanizing, and through his musical differences with other band members. His story about the brutalization of his mother and the murder of his father at the hands of whites also provides insight into Levee’s argumentative nature and rage. Cutler’s story is a familiar story for most blacks, in theme if not in plot: appeasing white power to survive.

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