Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
|Ma Rainey's Black Bottom|
|Written by||August Wilson|
|Place premiered||Eugene O'Neill Theater Center
|Series||The Pittsburgh Cycle|
|Subject||A blues group waits to get to work in the studio, and tempers flare.|
|Setting||Chicago, early 1927|
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is a 1982 play – one of the ten-play Pittsburgh Cycle by August Wilson – that chronicles the twentieth century African American experience. The play is set in Chicago in the 1920s (the only play in the group not set in Pittsburgh), and deals with issues of race, art, religion and the historic exploitation of black recording artists by white producers.
In a Chicago recording studio, Ma Rainey's band players Cutler, Toledo, Slow Drag, and Levee gather to record a new album of her songs. As they wait for her to arrive they tell stories, joke, philosophize, and argue. Tension is apparent between the young hot-headed trumpeter Levee, who dreams of having his own band, and veterans Cutler and Toledo.
By the time Ma Rainey arrives with entourage in tow, recording has fallen badly behind schedule, enraging white producers Sturdyvant and Irvin. Ma's insistence that her stuttering nephew Sylvester speak the title song's introduction wreaks further havoc. As the band waits for various technical problems to be solved, Levee and Cutler come to blows. Levee is then simultaneously fired by Ma and rejected by producer Sturdyvant and in rage fatally stabs Toledo, destroying any possibility of a future for himself.
- Ma Rainey, blues singer
- Cutler, trombonist
- Dussie Mae, Ma's girlfriend
- Irvin, Ma's manager
- Levee, trumpeter
- Slow Drag, bassist
- Sturdyvant, studio owner
- Mel Sylvester, Ma's nephew
- Toledo, pianist
The play was produced at the Cort Theatre on Broadway on October 11, 1984, and starred Charles S. Dutton as Levee and Theresa Merritt as Ma. Direction was by Lloyd Richards, one of August Wilson's most frequent collaborators. It received the 1985 Tony Award nomination for Best Play; Dutton and Merrit were nominated for acting awards. The show ran for 276 performances.
It was first performed in the UK at the National Theatre in London in 1989 in a production by Howard Davies starring Clark Peters and Hugh Quarshie as Toledo and Levee. It was enormously well received.
Subsequent UK revivals have taken place in Liverpool at the Playhouse (2004, direction: Gemma Bodinetz) and the Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre in a production starring Antonio Fargas as Toledo, Ram John Holder as Slow Drag, and Johnnie Fiori as Ma (2006, direction: Jacob Murray).
In 2016 the National Theatre in London revived the show to great critical acclaim, garnering a Laurence Olivier award for best revival. The production starred O-T Fagbenle as Levee and Sharon D. Clarke as Ma Rainey.
Awards and nominations
- 1985 New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best American Play
- 1985 Drama Desk Award Outstanding New Play
- 1985 Tony Award for Best Play
- Wilson, August (1985). Ma Rainey's Black Bottom: A Play in Two Acts (First ed.). New York: New American Library. ISBN 0-452-25684-4.