Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
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August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom premiered in 1984, as part of Wilson’s Century Cycle, also known as the Pittsburgh Cycle. The Century Cycle is a series of ten plays, each exploring the black experience in the United States during a different decade of the 20th century. Although Wilson wrote a few other plays, the Century Cycle constitutes the bulk of his life’s work as one of the most significant African-American playwrights in American theatre history. Wilson won countless awards for his Century Cycle plays, including two Pulitzer Prizes: one for Fences (1987), which is probably his best-known work, and the other for The Piano Lesson (1990). All of the plays in the Cycle except for Ma Rainey take place in the African-American Hill District in Pittsburgh, PA, where Wilson grew up. The plays are loosely interrelated, with a few characters who appear in multiple decades or who are generationally-related, but each work stands alone.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom takes place in 1927 and fictionalizes the real-life singer Ma Rainey, known as the Mother of the Blues, whose career spanned from 1899 to 1933. The play takes place over the course of one day in a Chicago recording studio, in which Ma Rainey and her band are laying tracks for a new album. Ma Rainey, who is simultaneously famous and unable to hail a cab because she is black, commands respect from her white agent and the white owner of the studio. She is late, and as her fourband members—Cutler, Slow Drag, Toledo, and Levee—wait for her to arrive, they discuss racial power dynamics, religion, art, and social activism. Levee, who has written his own music, attempts to assert his own style and artistry on the band, based on a supposed promise he extracted from the studio owner that they would record his music. When Ma Rainey fires him and the studio owner withdraws interest in his music, Levee turns his anger on his bandmates, stabbing and killing Toledo when he steps on Levee’s new shoes.
The play comments on the exploitation of black artistry during the 1920s, as the blues became popular in mainstream society. While Levee dreams of fame, his older and wiser bandmates understand that for African Americans, fame within white society does not equal respect or personhood. Although the white studio owner and agent jump to meet Ma Rainey’s demands, she only receives star treatment as long as she can be commodified. As Ma suggests, “If you colored and can make them some money, then you all right with them. Otherwise, you just a dog in the street” (63). The play shows the buildup of anger and frustration during the era of segregation and legal discrimination, and the ways in which a racist culture uses the talent of the oppressed while continuing to oppress them.