August Wilson, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

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.

Tom Wolfe, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

Wolfe, Tom. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Picador, 1968.

Summary of Work

Tom Wolfe documents the lives of the Merry Pranksters, the group of acid-tripping hippies who drove around the nation in a Day-Glo covered bus with Ken Kesey, the author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The group forms around Kesey as they start using LSD to have transcendent experiences, a drug he had on hand from volunteering as a test subject in a study at a college and from working at the mental hospital for a time while he wrote his first book. However, upon the announcement of the destruction of the neighborhood he is living in, he moves to La Honda, California, where a group of people, later known as the Merry Pranksters, follow him. They all live in the same home, spread out on the land and in the woods, and each work on their own projects. But two things bring them together: LSD and sound. Taking after William Burroughs’ ideas, they decide to wire everything up with both microphones and speakers and record all of it. They play back the sound by splicing it and speaking over it, as well as gathering any and all sound they can. When they decide that they’d also like to make a grand movie to cover their experiences on LSD, they take it one step further. Kesey buys a bus, which they paint in various Day-Glo colors. They completely gut the bus and remodel it to be a road-trip vehicle for them, and they wire it for sound inside and out so that they can play music, broadcast sound, and record while they are on their trip. Neal Cassady is the driver of the bus, and they take off across the country, doing acid at various points along the way and filming the acid trips.

As they start to become noticed across the country (LSD was not yet illegal), Kesey becomes a main face of the counterculture movement, and they start to come in contact with people such as the Grateful Dead and Hells Angels, and the relationships and associations help all groups they come in contact with gain more prominence. Kesey writes one more novel but then gives up writing and focuses on making acid tests catch on for the public. He and the Merry Pranksters host many different acid tests in California, fooling the cops along the way. They even attend a Beatles concert ridiculously high on LSD and don’t get caught for it. They watch the crowd and see how enthralled they are by the Beatles and the control the Beatles have over the crowd but do not use for anything outside of the music or money-making business itself, and Kesey and the group leave back to their bus to make noise on their microphones and tapes. They host a big party for the Beatles, who never show up.

When they do finally get in trouble for something, it is for possession and use of marijuana. The first time the sentencing is lighter, but the next time Kesey is caught with it, he knows that it will be a prison sentence. So he runs away to Mexico, becoming more and more paranoid that the cops are after him and he is going to be extradited. The Pranksters make their way down to Mexico and stay with him for a time, and then help him get back across the border, where he spends some time in California before he is caught and thrown in jail. He avoids sentencing by saying that he would like to tell people that they need to go “beyond acid.” The authorities, thinking that he means that he will tell everyone to stop doing acid and talk about the dangers of it, give him a light sentence and ask him to go on public television to make his statement. But when he goes public with his statement, he never outright declares acid to be a bad influence or as having negatives. He simply says that once you go through the door that acid opens up, you have to take more steps rather than just keep opening and closing the same door.

Kesey and the Pranksters host one more “Acid Graduation” event, where they show that the next step is trying to achieve the transcendence they experience on LSD without the mind-altering drugs. Many news crews, journalists, and others show up to document the event, but leave before it ends, unable to understand what is going on.

The Pranksters themselves aren’t sure that they understand what Kesey’s new goals and direction are, and eventually, one by one, the group members go their own separate ways. Kesey serves his time in work camps in California while his family lives in Oregon. The movie never gets finished, although during the whole time the Pranksters are active people are cutting it and editing it and shooting more film. The film, writings, and sound recordings that are in the Prankster archive are what Wolfe used to piece together the biographical, very subjective narrative that is the book.

 

Brief Note on Themes

This work is a prime example of New Journalism, and it is considered a great representation of the counterculture of the Beat Generation in the 1950s and 1960s. Sound and music plays a large part in this book, making it great for sound studies considerations. Pseudo-religious activity is also a major part of the work, as the Pranksters nearly worship Kesey as the new Messiah, with the Pranksters as the apostles, and they utilize LSD trips to have essentially religious experiences. Drug use is a major theme, particularly acid use. Intersubjectivity is prominent in the work, and focuses on the idea that people can enter into a space where they know what it’s like to be someone else and achieve the ability to think and act as a group. For counterculture, the work focuses on the differences between what others were doing at that time, which was largely unknown, and what the Pranksters were doing, which was bringing the alternate lifestyle to the public eye rather than keeping it underground.

 

Questions about the Work

  1. In this book, we see clearly the obsession that the Pranksters have with mixed media content in conjunction with their acid trips. Claire, a young and naive girl who shows up to an Acid Test event in Watts, states in her account that before she, unawares, dosed herself with LSD, she didn’t understand what was going on: “This may explain why a lot of people were digging the film, laughing, and also why a lot of people were there . . . I’m sure that I was one of a minority who had no idea what to expect. The word must have been passed, but didn’t get to me” (272). After ingesting the LSD, Claire’s perspective of the film and sounds changes from simply odd nonsense to an otherworldly environment. This got me wondering, what is it about sound, lag, and reverb that create situations that seem otherworldly or out of place? What is the purpose of the acid trips and the sound and image manipulation beyond the vague notion of expanding understanding or knowledge?
  2. Tom Wolfe describes his process as one that tries to encompass the full Prankster experience: the drugs, the pranks, the adventures, and the recordings. He states, “The Pranksters recorded much of their own history in the Prankster Archives in the form of tapes, diaries, letters, photographs and the 40-hour movie of the bus trip” (415). How does having so many recordings of people change the way we approach writing a nonfiction work, and when is it useful to stray away from transcription and become more subjective, as Wolfe suggests that he does throughout the work?
  3. Geographically speaking, the many of the acid tests are done in largely black communities (see the houses they rent/use, geographical areas like Compton). What is problematic about the image the Pranksters and other whites have created around these black communities?