Some random notes on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom 3.26.2020

“The Play” stands out as one of the great introductions in the Cycle series and an excellent example of August Wilson’s talent and skill as a poet. It describes 1927 Chicago and its residents graphically and with deep feeling, so much so that one wonders why anyone might still call the plays the Pittsburgh series. Of course, we know why, every other play is set in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. But with Ma Rainey, Wilson makes a statement that he is not owned by Pittsburgh or any other geographic location.

His description touches on a broad cross section of society’s inner city, the crooked and the straight, yet he leaves space in the imagination of the reader with his haunting “somewhere” alliteration: a man wrestling with the taste of a woman in his mouth; a dog barking; the fallen moon breaking into 30 pieces of silver. Thirty pieces of silver suggests betrayal, the denial of Peter, and in Exodus, the price of a slave.

The passage is also reminiscent of the poetry of Frank O’Hara, especially The Day Lady Died, do this and do that, a list of descriptive everyday activities. Surely Wilson must have been familiar with O’Hara during his poet days in the 60’s.

He closes with a reference to being both a victim and the ten thousand slain. There is the ten thousand in Xenophon’s Anabasis, ten thousand mercenaries who marched from the Mediterranean to Persia, but most of them lived. There is a ten thousand slain reference in Romeo and Juliet. There is the biblical reference of David’s slain ten thousand. We have many choices.

The epigraph, a Blind Lemon Jefferson song lyric, is significant in Jefferson’s similarity to Ma Rainey. Called “the Father of the Texas Blues,” Jefferson was one of the first solo guitarists to achieve monetary success as a commercial performer. The whole song is on the YouTube playlist.

We have discussed Levee is previous sessions. There’s always more to say about Levee. He’s an anti-hero, brash, impolite, unendearing, tragic, but central to the plot. In fact, the play could have easily been called the Adventures of Levee Green but it wouldn’t have made any money! Levee was traumatized as a child and once we learned about it our hearts poured out for him. But Levee refused to live by the rules, and he met a tragic end. From the music side, he saw himself as a modernist, breaking away from the old restrictive bonds. He was the archetypal Louis Armstrong, who also played for Ma Rainey as a young man. But he couldn’t get along with anybody, not Ma, not his fellow band members, not even Sturdyvant. I think Levee was deeply unhappy. Authentic but deeply unhappy.

Levee refers to himself in the third person. He tells his fellow band members, “Ain’t nothing gonna happen to Levee. Levee ain’t gonna let nothing happen to him.” He is stepping outside of himself, outside his own tragic story. At the same time, he is beginning to establish his brand. Later in the same scene, Levee proclaims, “I’m Levee. Just me. I ain’t no imitation nothing!” And further qualifies, “I ain’t no imitation white man. And I don’t want to be no white man.” Definitely the anti-hero.

Slow Drag, Cutler, Toledo, all great characters. I would have liked to hang out with such a crew. Although a tragedy, reading Ma Rainey always lifts my spirits. I have more margin notes in Ma Rainey than in any other play in the series.

Addendum: Some thoughts on Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.

Ma Rainey is set in a combined recording studio and band room. The story being told is primarily about music and its reproducibility for the mass market. Ma repeatedly makes the distinction between the people who may buy records and her fans on the road, with a decided preference for the later. Ma says, “I ain’t playing with you, Irvin. I can walk out of here and go back to my tour. I don’t need to go through all this.” Later she says, “What I care about Bessie? I don’t care if she sell a million records. She got her people and I got mine. I don’t care what nobody else do. Ma was the first and don’t you forget it.”

Benjamin distinguishes between live art that served a purpose in magic and religious rituals, and mechanically reproduced art that “emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual.” Many years ago I saw a jazz group, Spyrogyra, in their early days, perform in a venue in Providence, Rhode Island that was not much larger than a very large living room. Prior, I had only heard their music on cassette tape. There was magic and an energy exchange ritual between performers and observers in that living room that could never be replicated with the finest of recording devices. The same thing happened when I went to a very young Wynton Marsalis concert in a tiny auditorium at Old Dominion University after only having heard his music emitted via speakers and a turntable. Emancipating a work of art from dependence on ritual has its place, but the experience is just not the same.

Ma says, “White folks don’t understand about the blues. They hear it come out (exhibition value) but they don’t know how it got there (cult value). They don’t understand that’s life’s way of talking. You don’t sing to feel better (again, exhibition value). You sing ’cause that’s a way of understanding life (cult value).” Benjamin cites two planes on which works of art are received and valued, the cult value where artistic production connects to ritual artifacts that serve a limited cult of elite observers, versus the exhibition value where art practices are freed from ritual with increased opportunities for “distribution.”

A “meta”- example that the play demonstrates is the distinction between seeing a play performed on a stage versus seeing it as a movie, performed on a screen. There is an interaction on the stage, and an energy exchange that flows off the stage into the playhouse that you just don’t get watching a film. There are, however, degrees of freedom granted to the film director and the cinematographer that do not exist for the stage director. And vice versa. And animation takes film direction to an all new height, I suppose.

Some interesting tidbits from the Sandra Shannon interview with August Wilson on Ma Rainey.

  1. Broadway producers offered Wilson $25,000 for his play but with no creative direction. They wanted to turn it into a musical. Although Wilson was only making $85 per week as a short order cook at the time, he rejected the offer. Then he contacted Lloyd Richards at Yale Rep, who gave him full artistic direction.
  2. The key actor in the first Broadway production of Ma Rainey, Theresa Merritt, was locked out of her hotel room during the production because she insisted on paying weekly instead of night to night. She moved to the Hilton, where she found flowers and fruit in her room.
  3. The cast arrived at Manhattan Records to record Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom for the production. The producer met them and said, “You boys come on it. I’ve got sandwiches for you.” This was 1985. But just like in the 1927 play. Theresa was late, and when she arrived, she complained about the heat in the studio. The heat never came up. They recorded in their coats.

YouTube playlist

Session 1 notes

Session 2 notes

Session 3 notes

Ma Rainey Obituary: Overlooked No More

The Queer Lady Who Reinvented the Blues