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.
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...
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