Southern Lit 2: “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”
Last night, I finished reading August Wilson’s play “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” about an ill-fated blues recording session in 1927. Unlike in “Fences” or “The Piano Lesson,” which both had a distinct character who was driving the plot, this play had three characters who I though could have been that force: the slow and steady band leader Cutler, the brash and innovative trumpet player Levee, or the self-important blues singer Ma Rainey. Most likely that character was Levee, as his arrangement of the focal song “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” was the main source of tension within the band and as the play ends with his anticlimactic rejection at the hands of the white record producer Sturdyvant, who had earlier promised him a record deal. Levee is the true free spirit in the cast, in the same way that Troy Maxson and Boy Willie are in their respective plays. However, Cutler can’t easily be relegated to being called a minor player either; he is the pivotal character in the group, the one who deals with everyone, the constant among variables.
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” did not strike me as being as strong of play as “Fences” or “The Piano Lesson.” The ending was more believable and acceptable than the end of “The Piano Lesson,” and the tension was more disparate than focused on one person, as in “Fences.” The strength of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” was that most of the African-American characters — Levee, Cutler, Toledo, and Slow Drag — are really well fleshed out with their actions on stage and with their own back stories. However, the title character Ma Rainey seemed really flat and predictable, as were both white characters, the manager Irvin and the producer Sturdyvant. I couldn’t see a reason for the Dussie Mae character to be in the play at all, personally.
I will give it to August Wilson that “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” shows versatility, getting away from the domestic situations in his other two most highly regarded plays. I have heard several people tell me that they really like “Seven Guitars,” which I have not seen or read. I’m working up some ideas for an academic/scholarly article to write about these three August Wilson plays, and that work should take shape in the coming weeks.