74 pages 2 hours read

August Wilson

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Fiction | Play | Adult | Published in 1984

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Act I

Chapter Summaries & Analyses

Act I Summary

The play takes place in early March of 1927 at a Chicago recording studio. Wilson describes the Chicago of the period as “a rough city, a bruising city, a city of millionaires and derelicts, gangsters and roughhouse dandies, whores and Irish grandmothers” (5). It begins after lunch:

[O]n the city’s Southside, sleepy-eyed Negroes move lazily toward their small cold-water flats and rented rooms to await the onslaught of the night, which will find them crowded in the bars and juke joints both dazed and dazzling in their rapport with life. It is with these Negroes that our concern lies most heavily: their values, their attitudes, and particularly their music(5). 

Although Wilson calls this music “hard to define” (5), he is talking about the blues. At the beginning of Act I, Irvin and Sturdyvant, who are both white, set up the recording studio in preparation for Ma Rainey and her band. Sturdyvant, the studio owner and producer, tells Irvin, Ma Rainey’s manager, to keep the singer under control, warning him that he’s not “putting up with any shenanigans” (10). Irvin, who “prides himself on his knowledge of blacks and his ability to deal with them” (9) agrees.