Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

From LitWiki
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Written byAugust Wilson
Date premiered1984
SeriesThe Pittsburgh Cycle
SettingChicago, 1927

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a 1984 play by August Wilson. It first opened on April 6, 1984, at the Yale Repertory Theater in New Haven, Connecticut. [1]




Sturdyvant is a white music business executive. He appears to own the recording label that releases Ma Rainey's songs, despite the fact that it is never clearly stated in the play. Despite the fact that he gets his money by selling Black musicians' music, he is extremely bigoted when it comes to Ma. He orders Irvin, one of his associates, to keep Ma "in line" throughout the recording session, as if Ma is an unstable, untrustworthy person. When he tries to lord his white manhood over Ma, she defies him by refusing to continue with her music. Sturdyvant gives in to Ma's requests since he knows he'll lose money if he doesn't let him record her.


Irvin is a white music business executive. Though he is Ma Rainey's manager, he works alongside Sturdyvant. He, on the other hand, spends almost as much time attempting to satisfy Sturdyvant as he does working for Ma, frequently functioning as a buffer between Sturdyvant's racist condescension and Ma's strong will. Despite the fact that Irvin is her manager, Ma realizes that he just cares about her because her music brings him money. He frequently talks to her about "sticking together," but it's evident to her that he merely wants to keep her as a client.


Ma Rainey's band features Cutler, a Black guitarist and trombone player. He serves as the band's unofficial leader, ensuring that the band plays whatever Ma requests. Unlike Levee, he believes in simply performing what is asked of him, saying that the objective of this band is for the musicians to accompany Ma rather than for them to shine. He takes issue with Levee's idealistic concepts about art and musicianship because of his unselfish approach, seeking to persuade him that as long as he's in Ma's band, the only thing that matters is what Ma says, not Levee's great ideas about art and music. Cutler tries to help Levee stay out of trouble.


Toledo is a pianist who appreciates philosophical discussions about life and what it's like to be Black in America. He is the band's only literate member. As he and the other musicians pass the time in the band room, he frequently pushes them by encouraging them to consider topics such as change, history, and tradition. He highlights the argument that since enslavers forcibly removed their ancestors from Africa, Black Americans have been cut off from their cultural history. Toledo believes that in order to re-establish a sense of culture, Black people must work together to improve their status in American society.

Slow Drag

Slow Drag a Black musician who plays the bass.  He appears sluggish and unobservant, although he is actually highly bright. He's content to play whatever Ma orders him to play, much like Cutler and Toledo, but he's also anxious to get the job done and go home. He frequently encourages his bandmates to concentrate on rehearsing, telling them that practicing the songs will save them from having to spend the entire day and night in the studio. And the sooner they complete the recording, the sooner they will get compensated. Levee, who is more concerned with creating innovative art than with making money, is irritated by his utilitarian, workmanlike attitude to music. Slow Drag, on the other hand, has no grand aspirations about innovation; all he wants to do is make a living.


Ma Rainey's band include Levee, a young Black trumpet player. He is a self-assured, ambitious man who is dissatisfied with his employment as a backup musician. He believes Ma Rainey's music isn't interesting enough, so he attempts to drive the band forward by performing in a more modern, "fresh" way. Not only does his behavior irritate Ma, but it also irritates Cutler, who tries to persuade Levee that his high ideals about music and art don't matter to Cutler; all Levee has to do is perform what he's taught. However, Levee dislikes being told what to do, and his obstinacy prevents him from working well with his bandmates. Levee tends to speak blasphemously.

Ma Rainey

Ma Rainey was a real-life Black musician who made a name for herself in the early twentieth century by singing the blues. She is well aware of her own power in the play and understands how to utilize it to her advantage. Sturdyvant, for example, wants to take advantage of her gift, but she understands that if she doesn't allow him record her songs, he won't be able to make any money. When he and Irvin try to force her to do something she doesn't want to do, she threatens to leave the studio. As a result, she maintains creative ownership over her music, even though white studio executives profit from her songs in the end.


When Ma, Sylvester, and Dussie Mae get into a car accident on their way to the studio, the police officer assumes they're driving a stolen automobile and racially profiles them. He also blames them for the accident, claiming that Ma pushed a nearby cab driver over, despite Ma's allegation that the driver fell down on his own. However, because Ma claims to be famous, the officer offers to take her to the studio on his way to the police station, apparently fearing that he would be bribed to look the other way. Irvin then offers him money to forget about the incident, so he goes without causing any more trouble for Ma.

Dussie Mae

Dussie Mae is a young woman who joins Ma on her journey. Dussie Mae and Ma are romantically involved, despite the fact that it is never directly stated in the play. Dussie Mae, on the other hand, remains receptive to Levee's amorous approaches, though she informs him that she won't fully let him date her until he forms his own band and starts selling his own recordings. Despite this, she and Levee kiss in the band room while Ma is in the studio upstairs.


Ma's nephew is Sylvester. Ma brings him to the studio and tells him that he'll be doing a spoken-word entrance for the song "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom." However, because Sylvester has a pronounced stutter, the band is suspicious about his ability to deliver the introduction appropriately. Ma's decision enrages Levee in particular, because it means the band will not perform his arrangement of the song. Sylvester succeeds in performing the intro after numerous takes, but Levee is still furious about having to record the song in Ma's traditional, old-fashioned style.

Eliza Cottor

Slow Drag tells his colleagues a story about a man he knew in Alabama named Eliza Cottor. Eliza used to be a regular guy who placed shoes on mules and horses for a livelihood, but he sold his soul to the devil and began living a luxury lifestyle. He went on to murder someone, but the cops and the courts let him off the hook. Slow Drag claims to be roaming the country with a huge sack filled with the bloody fingerprints of anyone willing to sell their soul to the devil. Eliza gives individuals $100 for their souls wherever he goes.

Major Themes

Power and exploitation plays a big part in this play. The musicians are forced to deal with complicated power dynamics. They are subjected to racist manipulation by greedy white studio executives as Black artists in the exploitative entertainment industry of the 1920s. Sturdyvant, for example, treats Ma Rainey badly, speaking of her as if she were an untrustworthy child who needed to be "kept in line."[2] Despite his suspicions and racism, he continues to profit from her music. Worse, he offers her pitiful remuneration, paying her one-time recording fees while retaining all of the royalties for himself, a practice that was widespread at the time and prevented some of the era's most famous Black performers from receiving the money they deserved.

Development History

Publication History

Explanation of the Work's Title

Literary Significance and Reception

Awards and Nominations



  1. Wilson 1985, p. 7.
  2. Wilson 1985, p. 18.

Works Cited

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