Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the first of Wilson’s plays to win wide acclaim, is among his finest work. Set in a recording studio in the 1920’s, the story takes place over the course of an afternoon, as a group of musicians and the legendary blues singer Ma Rainey record several songs. Much of the play takes the form of discussions and arguments among the four musicians, each of whom brings his own perspective to questions of prejudice and the problems facing black people in American society.
Toledo, a thoughtful, serious man, speaks of racial pride and the need for self-determination. Cutler places his trust in religion. Slow Drag is uncomplicated and unwilling to question his lot too deeply. Levee believes that his musical talent will bring him respect and power. Ma Rainey is outspoken, demanding, and well aware that she will be tolerated only as long as her records make money for her white producers.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom contains many of the themes that run throughout Wilson’s subsequent work: the devastating effects of racial discrimination, the callous indifference with which white society has traditionally regarded black Americans, and the idea that the key to black self-reliance and salvation lies in developing a sense of heritage and history. The play’s central message is contained in a comment made by Toledo: “As long as the colored man looks to white folks to put the crown on what he say . . . as long as he looks to white folks for approval . . . then he ain’t never gonna find out who he is and what he’s about. He’s just gonna be about what white folks want him to be about.”
Ma Rainey is as aware as Toledo of the harsh realities of black life in American society, commenting that “they don’t care nothing about me. All they want is my voice.” Fiercely determined to play her hand well for as long as it lasts, she demands star treatment and respect from her producers, knowing that she can expect nothing from them when her popularity wanes.
For Toledo and Levee, however, Toledo’s words will have tragic repercussions. As Levee sees his dreams of fame and success dissolve into the reality of the producer’s offer to pay him five dollars per song to “take them off your hands,” his anger turns to murderous rage against Toledo, who has accidentally stepped on his shoe. The opening Levee thought he saw in the white power structure was an illusion, and it is Toledo who pays the price for his despair.
Set in 1927 in a Chicago recording studio, August Wilson’s play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, explores the values and attitudes toward life and music of the classic blues singer, Ma Rainey. Their economic exploitation as African American musicians in a white-controlled recording industry, as well as their inferior social status in the majority white culture, become evident in the play’s dialogue and action. As Ma Rainey puts it: “If you colored and can make them some money, then you all right with them. Otherwise, you just a dog in the alley.”
For Rainey, the blues is “a way of understanding life” that gives folks a sense they are not alone: “This be an empty world without the blues.” As such, the blues has been a source of strength for African Americans, and performers like Ma Rainey have been bearers of cultural identity. A major theme of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and of other plays by Wilson is the necessity of acknowledging one’s past and connecting with one’s culture.
African American identity, however, with its roots in Africa and the rural South, is at times rejected by the members of Ma Rainey’s band. The pianist, Toledo, for example, points out the “ancestral retention” involved in the bass player’s trying to get some marijuana from another band member by naming things they have done together—in effect, an African appeal...
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