Some pre-class notes on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (3.21.2019)

There are two plays. There is the superficial plot of the play – a Ma Rainey recording session that ends in the production of a record by the star and a a tragic act committed among the band players. And there are several meta-plays that the playwright and all the characters both generate and represent between the lines. Let’s talk about the first, then the second.

Deep inside Act 1, after meeting all the band members and the staff of the recording company and learning through their “locker room talk” what makes them tick as individuals, Ma finally arrives with her girlfriend and her stuttering nephew and a police officer in tow. There’s been a traffic altercation that gets fixed with a small side payment.

The recording session, already behind schedule, gets further delayed as Ma (1) insists on getting a soft drink from outside the studio, and (2) insists that the band will do multiple takes until her stuttering nephew can get the voice introduction to her hit song right. Once the recording session is complete, or so we think, the recording crew discovers that a microphone was disconnected. So they have to do it one more time. Once completed, Ma refuses to sign the release, though after a short period of protestation, she signs and departs. And the fun begins. Levee (Levi, Louis Armstrong) the trumpet player, fired by Ma for being a hot shot (and for making overtures to Ma’s girlfriend), has been working a side deal with the record producer to produce his own band. The producer at length rejects Levee’s recording proposal, but offers him $5 for the score and “his troubles.” Levee feels dejected and disappointed and carries those feelings back to the band room, whereupon, he gets involved in a final altercation with Toledo, the piano player, resulting in what appears to be Toledo’s death by stabbing. As the curtain falls the sound of Levee’s trumpet is heard.

Time for a network break.

OK. An alternate perspective. Or several.

The “real” play is a series of representations. There is the waiting game that Professor Shannon writes about. Waiting for Ma to show up late. Waiting for the policeman to get his bribe. Waiting for Ma to get her Coke. The band members waiting for their alcohol and marijuana high to kick in. Waiting for Sylvester, the stutter to get his part right and without repetitions. Waiting for Levee to make his move on Dussie. Waiting for the microphone to get fixed so they can do one more take. Waiting for Slow Drag to finish his card trick. Waiting for Ma to sign the release. Waiting for Toledo to die. Professor Shannon writes about “The Long Wait” in Ma Rainey, linking it to African Americans’ long wait for freedom.

Professor Nadel writes about the metaphor of making the record, that is to say, writing the history. Wilson has written words to the effect that the blues contains history, philosophy, psychology and cosmology. But what distinguishes the performed blues of Ma with her fans on the road from the mechanically reproduced blues distributed by the recording company? If you’ve ever been to a live concert or a blues club the size of a large living room, you know the answer to that question.

Finally (or perhaps not but this blog post can’t go on forever!), remember, they (the New York/Broadway establishment) offered Wilson $25,000 for this play, but with no artistic direction on his part. They wanted to make it into a musical. In the end, Wilson rejected their offer (even though he was only making $80 a week as a short order cook) and forged the relationship with Lloyd Richards and the Yale Rep that preserved his artistic freedom.

In a meta sense (I propose that poets and playwrights tell three stories: the autobiographic (about their lives); the ethnographic (about their immediate environments); and the meta-poetic (about their experience with the process of writing itself), I hear August Wilson’s voice talking about writing and producing plays throughout this play. Stretch your imagination. In the character of the intellectual, Toledo (“Everything changing all the time. Even the air you breathing change.” And “Levee ain’t got an eye for that. He wants to tie on to some abstract component and sit down on the elemental.” And “That’s what you call an African conceptualization. That’s when you name the gods or call on the ancestors to achieve whatever your desires are.”) In the character of the band leader, Cutler (“We ain’t talking about the paper. We talking about you understanding where you fit in when you around here. You just play what I say.” and ” Levee’s confused about who the boss is. He don’t know Ma’s the boss.” And “You plays the piece. . . Whatever they want! Ma says what to play! Not you! You ain’t here to be doing no creating.”)

And, yes, in the character of Ma, the diva herself (“White folks don’t understand about the blues. They hear it come out, but they don’t know how it got there. They don’t understand that’s life’s way of talking. You sing ’cause that’s a way of understanding life.” And, “If you colored and can make them some money, then you all right with them. Otherwise, you just a dog in the alley. I done made this company more money from my records than all the other recording artisits the got put together. And they want to balk about how much this session is costing them.”)

Although I haven’t mentioned it much here, the play is in large part Levee’s biopic. He is the character whose development we see the most of, from his childhood to his tragic act at the end of the play. As the Louis Armstrong surrogate, Levee heralds the new music, the modern blues, and modernism itself. As the only reader and writer of music in the ensemble, his final act brings to an end the life of the only literate member of the band, the only one who has an appreciation for history and culture and, in turn, the neoclassical approach. Rest assured that Levee gets a short sentence, and returns to music making (history writing) on his own terms, eclipsing Ma and all the others of his cohort, in Act 3 of this play.

Here are Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom notes from session #1: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2018/03/08/some-links-to-background-material-for-ma-raineys-black-bottom/

Here are Ma Rainey notes from session #2: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2018/10/01/notes-on-ma-raineys-black-bottom-10-01-2018/