Race Records

Survival's the Tune, and August Wilson's Plays Sing It

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is a play about injustice, endurance, art, and cultural identity—heavy freight for a single evening in the theater. There's an extent to which every play by an African American writer must be about these topics, but August Wilson chose them and arranged them with a degree of focus that had never been seen before, and the force of the resulting effect was so strong that he himself was launched on a major career as an icon of precisely the cultural-identity issues he was writing about. No wonder, then, that the nimbus of news and gossip around the new production of Ma Rainey seems to be reflecting the action of the play itself. The stars' publicly voiced displeasure with their white producers parallels the discontent that the play's Ma Rainey asserts openly, and that her bandsmen mutter about to each other; talk of squabbling among the producers mirrors the unseemly bickering which is the entire onstage relationship of Ma's manager and the record producer; departures and ailments within the cast seem like scripted foreshadowings of the thorny relationship at the play's core, between the ambitious trumpeter Levee and his colleagues.

The unnerving resonances—which have made some of my colleagues angle their reviews to spotlight the gossip rather than the performance—reaffirm the validity of Wilson's play, as well as the ongoing relevance of its truth. Popular performance, especially of music, has been and continues to be a battlefield for African Americans, a disputed territory of cultural ownership, simply because it was a permitted area in a time when freedom in other respects was a restricted or fictive thing. People who never saw de jure segregation at work, and only know the de facto brand as a vociferously contested phenomenon, often have difficulty comprehending this: For them a song is a song is a song. But when you can only enter certain buildings, even as an invited guest, by carrying a parcel and being sent up the freight elevator as a deliveryman, the song you choose to sing in that building becomes the most important thing not only in your life but in that of your people. And the image I have chosen is as benign an example of segregation's effect as could be found; in terms of civilization, it is centuries ahead of the scent of burning flesh suspended from a tree, that "pastoral scene of the gallant South," as one of Ma Rainey's successors phrased it, in a song which is itself a famously contested cultural object.

Ma Rainey is an interlocking set of such cultural contests, placed by Wilson in a 1927 Chicago recording studio of the imagination. What gets said and done has little to do with the realities of recording popular songs, then or now; the work's nominal realism is only an anchor for its complex and multifaceted debate, a jam session of ideas marred by conflicting agendas and outside (i.e., white) interventions. Ma herself, the "mother of the blues," is also the mother of the flock, the star as maternal functionary—a mixture of artist, business negotiator, nurturer, and disciplinarian. Cutler, the elderly trombonist and bandleader, is her lieutenant, in service not only to Ma but to the art of music itself; his motto is "You plays the piece." This puts him in direct confrontation with Levee, who dreams of being a songwriter with his own band, and sees every piece as the occasion for a flamboyant display of riffs. Caught between the two are Cutler's ally Slow Drag, the bass player, a rural soul as amiably unreflective as his name, and Toledo, the pianist, an intellectual with the faint pomposity of the self-taught, whose deep concern for the future of black Americans tends to get sidetracked, when he speaks, into either vast, empty abstractions or the niggling details of his eccentrically mixed metaphors.

Dutton, Goldberg, and Henderson in Ma Rainey: a rite to sing the blues
photo: Joan Marcus
Dutton, Goldberg, and Henderson in Ma Rainey: a rite to sing the blues

Toledo's airy philosophizing grates particularly on Levee, who sees the world as made up of real objects to be grabbed when accessible. He has his reasons. While the others have endured the misery of African Americans in the Jim Crow era without undue agony, Levee has suffered it at its worst, in a childhood trauma, his description of which is the play's emotional peak, and he has the scars to prove it. A good instance of Wilson's unyielding vision of black America is that Levee's story, which leaves the audience gasping for breath, in no way inspires his colleagues to cut him any slack. To point the irony, Wilson invents a pair of followers for Ma: her nephew, Sylvester, and her girlfriend of the moment, Dussie Mae. Sylvester has a severe stutter; Ma's notion of therapy is to have him record the three-line spoken introduction to the title song. Her care for family does not extend to the band—certainly not to Levee, whose assertive trumpet decorations get in the way of her singing, and whose competitive interest in Dussie Mae is altogether unwelcome. While Ma battles her manager and producer, and Sylvester struggles to get his lines right, one thing after another goes wrong for Levee. The ultimate result is an act of violence that, though seeming to be an absurd overreaction that comes from nowhere, is in fact inevitable, achingly foreshadowed in almost every second or third speech, though you have to have seen or read the play before to realize it's coming.

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