Wilson, August. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Plume, 1985.
Summary of Work
The play opens in a recording studio, with two men, Sturdyvant and Irvin, discussing Ma Rainey’s work. Sturdyvant, the owner of the recording studio, thinks that Ma Rainey is a diva, and he’s upset that her last recording didn’t sell as well as he wanted in the North, even though it sold in the South. He wants nothing to do with talking with the black people in the studio, and leaves Irvin to take car of that. He also requests that Levee, the horn player, have more of a role in the music because that is what is the new sound that’s selling. Aftewards, the band sets up for rehearsal. Levee is late because he is buying new shoes. When he arrives, he immediately starts bantering with the other band members: first about the price of his shoes and how Cutler helped him pay for them; then about how to spell the word music, and then about how the songs should be played. Levee wants to add more of a jazz feel to the music, and he doesn’t want to rehearse songs they’ve played numerous times.
They start rehearsing, but are regularly interrupted by arguments between Levee and Toledo, who reads books and has a lot to say about race relations and black entertainment and advancement. Slow Drag, a man who’s as laid back as his name implies, keeps trying to divert discussion so they can get back to rehearsing, but he fails. In the meantime, Ma Rainey has still not shown up, and Irvin is nervous about it. Just as Sturdyvant is getting angry, Ma Rainey, her girlfriend Dussie Mae, and her nephew Sylvester walk into the recording studio, escorted by a policeman. The policeman tells Irvin that she had hit another car with her car and then tried to run away in a cab, and then assaulted the cab driver when he wouldn’t take her. Irvin tells Ma he will handle it, and he slips the police officer some money for him to forget about taking her to the precinct.
Since the production of the record is delayed from the incident, Irvin gets sandwiches for the band, and while eating, they discuss their pasts. Cutler tells about how Slow Drag, dancing in a competition with a woman one evening, nearly got knifed for dancing with her when the woman’s boyfriend saw them. He talked the guy out of knifing him by saying that he was trying to help the girl win the competition so she could buy him a gold watch. After that, all the women wanted to Slow Drag with him, which is how Slow Drag got his name.
Toledo discusses how black people are the “leftovers” (57) in America, and after a brief discussion about race relations, they start to rehearse Levee’s version of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Ma hears it from upstairs and confronts Irvin about it, who tries to convince her that it’s the style people want, but she’s not hearing it. She goes downstairs and tells them what they will be playing, and tells them that Sylvester will do the speaking part at the beginning of the song. Afterwards, Levee goes off, and in his anger, tells the story of watching his mother get gang raped by white men, and how he tried to stop them by getting a kitchen knife and cutting them, and they took the knife and sliced his chest open, nearly killing him. Then he tells about his father selling the home to one of the white rapists so they could get out of town.
Act Two opens with Irvin and the band discussing how Sylvester can’t do the part, and Irvin tells them to stick with Levee’s version of the song and he’ll work it out with Ma. Ma goes to record and sees there’s no coke to drink, and she will not record until she gets one. She waits, and tells Cutler that she knows that she doesn’t mean anything but money to these white men. She says that because of that, she’s going to do everything she can to ensure that they treat her how she wants to be treated even if it kills the white men. She talks about how the blues are a more than a form of expression for her, they are a form of survival, a way to understand life. Meanwhile Levee starts seriously flirting with Dussie Mae.
When they finally get to recording, they first have problems with Sylvester getting the line right. When he finally does, they don’t get it recorded due to technical difficulties with the sound equipment. Ma threatens to leave, and Irvin hurries to get the issues fixed. While they are waiting, the other men in the band tell Levee to lay off Ma’s girl, and try to tell him the problems that it will bring him to meddle with women who are involved already. They also try to tell him that the way he dresses won’t change anything in the eyes of white people, and that they even know black preachers who, very well dressed, were publicly humiliated and harassed by white people. Levee gets angry and says he isn’t an “imitation white man” (94), and he starts in about how he is going to be successful with his music once Sturdyvant lets him record. When Cutler tries again to talk to him about God, he insults Cutler and says that his God, if he is real, can strike him down.
Finally, the issues are fixed, and they finish recording. Afterward, Ma confronts Levee about his playing and tells him that he is to play his horn in a way that fits her music style for the band. When he gets upset at Ma, she fires him. Figuring he doesn’t need the job anyway, he goes to talk to Sturdyvant about his music, and he finds out that Sturdyvant will buy his songs for a few dollars, but won’t let him record. With no job and no prospects, he is upset, and as the band is getting ready to leave, Toledo accidentally steps on Levee’s shoes. Levee, in a rage, stabs and kills Toledo.
Brief Note on Themes
This play is the only one of Wilson’s Century Cycle plays to be based on a historical figure, although he insisted that Ma Rainey was not a researched character. The play itself deals with how the music and entertainment industry treated its black artists, who sold very well and yet were terribly treated and underpaid. Issues of segregation, how popular music is marketed, race relations, economic opportunity, educational opportunity, and black rage brought on by systemic injustice and oppression feature throughout the play. One distinct example is the altercation with the police, where only a white man can pay off the white police officer to keep Rainey out of jail. Still, the power black entertainers held was more than the average black person: Rainey describes being able to be forceful and get what she wants from white men in the business when otherwise she has no power to command respect, or if not respect, then decent treatment.
Music plays a big part of this play, the first of Wilson’s Century Cycle. The purpose of the blues is a theme running through the work. Blues is one of Wilson’s main influences for his work (he stated this many times in interviews during his lifetime). While Rainey outright states how she feels about it, the blues also feature as each of the characters tell their stories of sadness, travel, and life experience. Recording technologies are explored, as glitches occur throughout the process (a known problem for Paramount, since their recordings were regularly poor quality). The recorded and unrecorded blues songs can stand in as a form of cultural memory, music that passes on important information from one generation of listeners to the next.