Plot Summary: Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

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Date: 2003
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Plot summary
Length: 1,148 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1110L

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The play takes place in March 1927, in a Chicago recording studio, where four African American musicians are awaiting the arrival of the celebrated blues singer, Gertrude "Ma" Rainey. Also present are Sturdyvant, the white owner of the studio, and Ma's white manager, Irvin. The musicians include pianist Toledo, a Black Nationalist; group leader and trombonist Cutler, whose frequent role is to defuse tensions among the members; bassist Slow Drag, who masks his problems with humor; and Levee, an energetic and ambitious trumpeter. The men exchange anecdotes about the past that illustrate the difficulties black musicians face as they make their way in racist white America. They speak fondly of Ma, referring to her as the "mother of the blues," and her queenly arrival seems to justify this title. Accompanied by her nephew and a young woman who may be her lover, Ma immediately asserts herself by demanding that someone buy her two bottles of Coca-Cola. Despite her imperiousness, Ma knows that her control does not extend past the limits of this recording session, for which she will be paid scandalously little. A conflict arises when Levee, who derides Ma's music as old-fashioned, wants to record the song "Black Bottom" in the "jazz dance" style he favors, which is gaining popularity over traditional blues. Ma finally fires Levee, whose frustrations are increased when he is unable to negotiate a fair price for the original songs he sells to Sturdyvant. In the play's final scene, Levee's simmering rage is ignited when Toledo accidentally steps on his new shoes, and he stabs the pianist to death.


Wilson emerged in the 1980s as a prominent new voice in the American Theater. Like his later plays, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom was developed at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center's National Playwrights Conference, debuted at the Yale Repertory Theater, and went on to Broadway. Wilson received the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Ma Rainey, which is praised for its vivid characters and authentic, lively dialogue. The play is the first in Wilson's planned cycle of dramas depicting the experiences of African Americans during each decade of the twentieth century. In highlighting the world of black musicians in the late 1920s, it also lends insight into the struggles of the larger African American population against racism and injustice.

The play's title character is based on an actual blues singer whom some regard as the "mother of the blues." Although the real Ma Rainey did record a "Black Bottom" record in Chicago during the same period featured in the play, the episode it depicts is imagined. Ma is a short, heavy woman with a queenly bearing and an imperious, high-handed manner. Her prima donna act could be viewed as either justified or, in view of her true status, foolish, for although she is proud, talented, and a shrewd businesswoman, Ma wields little real power over her own life and profession, and she knows it. She underlines the theme of American culture's exploitation of black people's gift of music when she states that the white record company "don't care nothing about me;" they record her precious voice and then "it's just like I'd be some whore and they roll over and put their pants on." Nevertheless, Ma's struggles, real as they are lack the tragedy that marks those of some of her fellow musicians, and her command of a great African American musical form also lends her genuine grandeur. "You don't sing [the blues] to feel better," she explains at one point in the play. "You sing because that's a way of understanding life."

Wilson employs the brash, ambitious trumpet player Levee as an example of how white racism may have the effect of turning blacks against themselves. In his early thirties, the stylish, energetic Levee is the youngest member of the band and the one most eager to modernize its sound. He prefers the new, improvisational jazz style over what he calls the "jugband music" favored by Ma, and he tries unsuccessfully to convince the producers to record his version of "Black Bottom." They refuse, and he is also unable to negotiate a fair deal for the songs he sells Sturdyvant; despite his servility in dealing with the studio owner, he receives only five dollars per song. Levee's long history of pain (he saw his mother gang-raped by white men and his father lynched for killing two of her attackers), anger, and frustration finally erupt in his violent act against Toledo, an ending that some reviewers have called contrived. Interestingly, Ma Rainey's real trumpet player for some of her sessions during the 1920s was Louis Armstrong.

Piano-player Toledo, the only band member who regularly reads, is a kind of self-taught philosopher who frequently delivers lectures on African American history and black people's need to work for change. Unlike other blacks of the period, Toledo embraces his African past, claiming that "we done sold ourselves to the white man in order to be like him." The band's leader, Cutler, who plays both guitar and trombone, is known for the phrase with which he sets his musicians in motion: "A-one, a-two, y'all know what to do." Like his friends, Cutler has witnessed much injustice in his life, but he has a fatalistic attitude and simply tries to get by with as little trouble as possible. Sensible and cautious, he focuses on the task at hand and tries to defuse the tensions that arise within the group. Bass player Slow Drag has a wide smile, a graceful playing style, and a bored demeanor. He uses humor and the pursuit of pleasure to escape his painful memories.

The play's two white characters embody the racism that was an institutionalized part of American life in the early part of the twentieth century. Their attitudes demonstrate that the struggles of African Americans against oppression were far from over. Sturdyvant, the owner of the recording studio in which Ma Rainey and her musicians gather, expresses his contempt for blacks through his statement that he would like to get into a more respectable line of work. Concerned only with the profits he may derive from these people, he peers down at them from a glass-enclosed control room, a particularly apt metaphor for the relationship between whites and blacks in the America of the 1920s. Although he has adopted a more conciliatory manner toward blacks, Ma's tall, heavy manager Irvin also considers himself their superior and prides himself on his ability to manipulate them. Other characters in the play include Ma's young, sexy companion Dussie Mae, whose ability to cause jealous tension between Levee and Ma suggests that she is Ma's lover; and Ma's nephew Sylvester, whom she insists be allowed, despite his stutter, to do the spoken introduction to "Black Bottom," and who she demands receive his own twenty-five dollar fee for this task.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|EJ2101301343