Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

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Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Main Idea

August Wilson's play Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, the play is about a 1927 Ma Rainey recording session in Chicago dramatizes the production of blues race-records as a critique of commercial and racial exploitation of blacks by whites. But this critique underlies the play as a kind of “given,” a basic slice of American life upon which another kind of drama is enacted. Wilson's characters present American blacks' strategies for survival and their dissemination of attitudes toward exploitation by means of playing the blues, singing the blues, telling the blues, and living the blues. So Wilson's play itself constitutes a dramatic “playing” of the blues wherein language, representation, and action on stage encompass several kinds of blues performances (Pela, Robert, 2010).

Kenneth Burke's ideas about “Literature as Equipment for Living” [in his The Philosophy of Literary Form, 1973] offer an approach to understanding the play, the blues, and the play-as-blues. Burke suggests that a work of literature “is the strategic naming of a situation. It singles out a pattern of experience that is sufficiently representative of our social structure ... for people to 'need a word for it' and to adopt an attitude towards it.” The word for it, August Wilson's strategic naming as dramatized in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, is “blues.” A brief recollection of some background about the blues will be useful before proceeding to the play(Rich, Frank, 1984).

August Wilson's play, then, is a blues-as-drama about the consequences of not understanding the relationship of self to history and culture. The lesson of Levee's Faustian break with his own blues tradition is sung, played, and told by the characters of a drama which fuses the naturalistic, representational, ensemble play with black American culture and music: with the blues as equipment for living.


August Wilson sets his play in a significant moment of the “Blues People's” history when the “classic blues” as sung by Ma Rainey was emerging from its origins in “country” or “primitive” blues, which in turn grew out of diverse traditions such as African music, the spiritual, and the Anglo-American folk ballad. The blues came north early in the twentieth century with blacks who migrated to find jobs in cities and industry. In the 1920's and 30's blues were increasingly shunned by middle-class blacks who tried to assimilate into the mainstream of white culture, but lower-class blacks, especially recently arrived migrants, often kept in touch with their southern cultural heritage of blues music. By the mid-1940's, Baraka claims, some middle-class blacks “had wandered completely from the blues tradition, becoming trapped in the sinister vapidity of main-line American culture.”

Even by 1927, black music and culture had undergone a major transformation which was manifested in blues performances and the associated production of entertainment and commodities for profit. As Baraka points out:

In the times of Classical blue singers, 'Blues' focused largely on the functional music. The functional music includes the work songs and this practice was not in practice earlier. These types of songs were not considered to be a ...
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