Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Setting:  1927
Written:  1982
Huntington Production:  2012

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Ma Rainey's Black Bottom Characters
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Curriculum Guide


  • CUTLER: Guitar and Trombone player in Ma Rainey’s band, Cutler is also the leader of all the other instrumentalists. A loner type in his mid fifties, he plays his music without embellishment—the same can be said for how he feels about life: he believes in getting things done quickly.
  • MA RAINEY: Based on a real life Ma Rainey with a career in Blues Music in the 1920’s, Wilson’s character is praised as “Mother of the Blues.” She has the final word in everything regarding the band, making all the decisions. Not one to be disillusioned, Ma Rainey was always aware that her manager and producer were set on simply making money off of her.
  • SLOW DRAG: As the slow-moving, yet talented bass player in Ma’s band, Slow Drag is a professional in his mid-fifties who is focused on his music. His name is the result of an incident in which he slow-danced with women for hours in order to make some money. Critics have referred to the music that Slow Drag plays as being reminiscent of African music.
  • LEVEE: The talented and temperamental trumpet player, Levee is the youngest member of the band, being in his thirties. He is a man who is confident with his appearance, especially when it comes to the expensive shoes he owns. Perhaps it’s because of his age that Levee is also the band member who wants to go off on his own and will begrudgingly play Ma Rainey’s music until he’s got his own band to do with what he pleases. He is frustrated, bitter, and is usually picking a fight with someone in the band. When he was only eight years old, he saw his mother raped by a gang of white men.
  • TOLEDO: Toledo, in addition to being the piano player for Ma Rainey, also acts as the band philosopher. Literate and reflective, he discusses abstract concepts like racial memory and the plight of the black man throughout the play despite his band-mates’ misunderstanding of much of what he says. He believes that style and musicianship are important to a performance. Having been married with children, Toledo lost his family in a divorce.
  • STURDYVANT: Overworked, penny-pinching, and obsessed with making money, he is the white owner of the Southside recording studio where Ma Rainey makes her music. Because he is uncomfortable dealing with black performers, he communicated mainly with Ma Rainey’s white manager, Irvin. Because of these reasons, he represents white exploitation of black music. 

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Act I:  Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom opens in a Chicago recording studio in early March 1927. Rainey has taken a break from touring to record some songs for Sturdyvant’s studio. As the lights come up, Sturdyvant is warning Irvin that he will not put up with any of Ma Rainey’s ‘‘shenanigans.’’ Sturdyvant characterizes Rainey as a prima donna, someone who expects the world to do her bidding. Irvin’s assurances that Rainey will show up on time do not sound convincing, however, and the more Sturdyvant warns Irvin that he won’t put up with Rainey’s attitude, the more prepared the audience becomes for an inevitable conflict when she does appear.

Cutler and the band appear shortly, and Levee shows up carrying his new shoes, which he paid for in part with money he won from Cutler the night before playing craps, a dice game. Levee’s new Florsheim shoes represent a shift in musical taste from blues to jazz and swing, a change that Sturdyvant wants to exploit, at least initially, when he tells Irvin to have the band record Levee’s version of ‘‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.’’

The bulk of act I is comprised of bantering between and among band players, with Levee arguing with almost everyone. The stories the band members tell and the subjects of their arguments both reveal their respective characters and outline a particular struggle blacks historically have had with whites.

One of these struggles is exemplified when Rainey finally makes her entrance, along with Sylvester, Dussey Mae, and a policeman, who threatens to arrest her for assaulting a cab driver after the group attempted to leave an automobile accident they were in. Wilson’s scenarios are universal enough to appeal to a racially diverse audience and to create empathy for dilemmas specific to blacks. The struggle for financial control of goods made by black labor is evident, for example, in the way in which Rainey responds to Irvin and the way in which Sturdyvant pressures Irvin. Act 1 ends with Levee, the youngest band member, telling the story of his mother’s rape and his father’s murder at the hands of white men. The important thing to remember about the action in this act isn’t what happens, but the emotional effect racial conflict has on how band members interact with one another, as well as with whites.

Act II:  In this act, Rainey asserts her prerogative in having Sylvester do the introduction to ‘‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,’’ even though band members and Irvin think it’s a bad idea because of his stuttering. Rainey’s insistence, however, symbolizes the duty she feels in giving powerless blacks a voice, both literally and figuratively. This demand—and her refusal to sing unless she has a Coca-Cola—illustrates almost stereotypical behavior of prima donna celebrities. However, Rainey’s motivation for behaving this way is more closely related to her desire to let her white producer and agent know that they cannot take advantage of black people in general and her in particular. Various characters, including Rainey, give speeches about white exploitation and mistreatment of blacks throughout the act. Levee, who Sturdyvant had promised could record some of his own songs, is humiliated by the producer, who now tells him that his music isn’t what people want. Enraged at a system that has squelched his creative powers, at a people who have shamed and exploited him, and at a man who has lied to him, Levee stabs Toledo. He does so, not because Toledo stepped on his shoe, but because Toledo was unfortunate enough to be in the vicinity just after Sturdyvant’s exchange with Levee. By offering no transcendence or resolution at the end of the play, Wilson figuratively ‘‘sticks it’’ to his audience as well, reminding them that the plight of African Americans remains the same.

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