Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (Plume)

by August Wilson

Paperback, 1985





Plume (1985), Edition: n, 111 pages


In a jazz-era Chicago recording studio, musicians await the great blues diva.

User reviews

LibraryThing member wildbill
This play by August Wilson is set in the 1920's in a Chicago recording studio. It is the only play in Wilson's Century Cycle that is not set in Pittsburgh. While it is the third play in the chronological order of the series it was the first one performed.
This is one of my favorite August Wilson plays. Ma Rainey was one of the first blues singers and I have been a fan of the blues for a long time. As Wilson's Century Cycle progresses through the twentieth century his portrayal of the life of African-Americans follows the historical changes in the relationships between black and white people in America. This play portrays the stark and violent racism that was the American way of life in the 20's.
The play opens with the members of Ma Rainey's band rehearsing while they wait for Ma to show up for a recording session. The band members are Cutler on trombone, Slow Drag on bass, Toledo on piano and Levee on trumpet. Levee is brash and bragging about writing songs and playing new uptempo music, more like jazz than real blues. Toledo is the philosopher of the group. Cutler is an old timer who doesn't like Levee and they argue constantly. Slow Drag is another old timer who got his nickname in a dance contest.
Sturdyvant owns the studio and his only interest is making money. Irvin is Ma Rainey's manager who mediates between Sturdyvant and the black characters trying to get folks calmed down and the set recorded.
Levee is the emotional center of the play. At the beginning he walks into the band room with some fancy new shoes that Slow Drag and Toledo make sure they step on. Levee is writing new songs and he is going to start his own band with the encouragement of Sturdyvant. During the play his anger wells up in a dialog about his mother being raped by 8 or 9 white men when he was eight years old. He tried to stop them and shows the scar on his chest where they cut him so bad they thought he was going to bleed to death. His father sold one of the men his land and moved off. Then his father snuck back around and killed four of them before they hung and burned him.
Ma Rainey comes in late with her girl friend and her nephew. Ma is the one who sells the records and she lets everyone know it. She won't start her set until she gets a Coca-Cola and she won't sing her song with the new music that Levee wrote, she is the star and runs the show. Levee and her get into it and she fires him after the set is done.
After the recording is done Ma walks off with her $200.00 while everybody else gets $25.00. Sturdyvant tells Levee that he can't use his songs. He said he had his boys play them and they don't sound like they will sell. Levee says "I play my music" but Sturdyvant shoves a couple dollars in his pocket and leaves. Then Toledo steps on Levee's shoes and all the weight in the world falls on Levee.....
Racism is present in every aspect of the play. The four grown men in the band are always referred to by white people as boys. Ma Rainey comes in with a cop in tow who wants to throw her and her nephew in jail. Cutler tells the story of Reverend Gates who was traveling and missed the train when it left the station. He was surrounded by white men who taunted him, pulled off the cross around his neck and tore up his Bible. Hate, self-hate and violence, the white man's gift to black America.
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LibraryThing member Tea58
This is a fantastic play by August Wilson. The themes are multiple. I chose to focus on Black History on two fronts. There is the White American man's shaping of American History, and there is the shaping of Black African American History. Sadly, the American majority had more control over their history or more vegetables with which to make their stew. Therefore, there is not as much oppression in America as they faced in Europe. America became their Promised Land. African Americans had to fight and struggle to get out of slavery, get out from the second hand citizenship in order to write their History in America. Some people might believe we left our Promised Land in Africa. August Wilson likens our endeavors to grow a nation to stew and leftover stew. His metaphors and other poetic language is magnificent like a hearty stew.

"You get a stew...You take and make your history with that stew.....You can't eat it all...You got some leftovers. You already making you another you another meal, and you don't need them leftovers no more. What to do? See, we's the leftovers. The colored man is the leftovers...The problem ain't with the white man. The white man knows you just a leftover. 'Cause he the one done the eating...But we don't know that we been took and made history out of. Done went and filled the white man's belly and now he's full and tired and wants you to get out the way and let him be by himself."

In the play, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Ma Rainey, I think, plays a small part compared to the men in the play. Although she is the famous person making the big bucks, she doesn't have as much dialogue. Perhaps, this is to prove a point about the African American female in that part of American History. I would love to have more time to reread this play and rethink it. It is like stew. It's rich with carrots, meat, peas and as my father called it "corn likker." I am excited to read his next play while still thinking about this one.August Wilson
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LibraryThing member Sean191
I liked the characters, I liked the setting. The writing was good, but the ending, although I can't place my finger on it, seems to be something I've read before elsewhere. . . possibly more than once, so I dropped my ratings a 1/2 star due to the questionable originality.
LibraryThing member DrFuriosa
Gutting. A compelling look at music, ambition, and simmering rage. I am looking forward to the film adaptation.


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