A Theme for the Masses Delivered by August Wilson


Essay #3

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” displays a typical blues recording session in 1920’s Chicago. It is an era where the traditional blues style is beginning to take a significant turn to meld with jazz in reflection to the wildness of the city. Chicago’s a “rough city……….a city of millionaires and derelicts, gangsters and roughhouse dandies” and in still a place where African-Americans struggle for a foothold in society. The play takes a glimpse into the lives of a group of African-American session players backing a blues legend, Ma Rainey. Five different outlooks educate each other on how to survive in a society that appears to be doing everything it can to classify and segregate its people. In the end, internal struggles with the past, present and the future sometimes can prove too much for a person to handle.

Toledo, Slow-Drag, and Cutler are three musicians in their mid-fifties who have already lived through more than a lifetime. All three grew up facing racism and soaking up an understanding of how one is supposed to act in the “white-man’s” world. A fourth musician, Levee, is in his thirties and of a whole different generation with a mind-set a bit left of his contemporaries. Levee is a man with goals whose is not satisfied playing back-up for stars and desperately strides to make it known that one day he’ll be up front with the “respect” of the masses. Levee has had his own experience with hate, beginning when he witnessed his mother being raped by a gang of white men when he was only eight years old. Lastly there’s the “Queen of the blues”, Ma Rainey herself. Ma’s been around the touring circuit for years in the south, and treks up to Chicago periodically to record. Ma squeezes everything she can out of her celebrity, and makes no apologies about it. Ms. Rainey goes as far as refusing to sing unless her nephew, with a very intense stuttering problem, can record an introduction on her album. She is granted every demand at most sessions, but Cutler is quick to note that she wouldn’t be getting the same treatment if she walked into one of the fancy hotels, uptown.

Ma Rainey realizes where she really stands in the eye’s of the white men that see to her every whim. She states, “They don’t care nothing about me. All they want is my voice……….As soon as they get my voice down on them recording machines, then it’s just like if I’d be some whore and they roll over and put their pants on”. Ma believes the only way to survive in this society is if there’s something that society can gain from her. Cutler, along with Slow-Drag fall in line with that thinking, but reserve themselves from making the waves the Ma does. Cutler, as the apparent spokesperson for the musicians, chooses to use that same reserve with Ma, opting to cautiously ask any questions rather than state what’s on his mind. Toledo, who prides himself on being a bit more educated than his band-mates, concludes that the key to pride and happiness lies in the understanding of how one holds themselves facing adversity rather than who one pleases. Levee, again being slightly younger, is a man of short temper and acute direction with a drastically different look on life than the others. Levee accepts selfishness as savior.

Levee, concerned about himself and no one else, sees nothing wrong with stepping on a few people and playing the “white man’s game”, so long as he gets to the top. Levee hints that the only thing important points in life is where he ends up and how long it takes him to get there. With so much at stake and so little to lose, it was too much for Levee to handle when a record producer delivered news of the broken promise of making him a star.

It is at the end of the Ma Rainey’s session when Levee is introduced to the reality of the recording business. Levee loses all sanity when his golden ladder to success burns down in front of him. When Toledo accidentally scuffs Levee’s show he responds with a knife in