Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

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Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom.jpg
Written by August Wilson
Date premiered 1984
Place premiered Eugene O'Neill Theater Center
Waterford, Connecticut
Original language English
Series The Pittsburgh Cycle
Subject A blues group waits to get to work in the studio, and tempers flare.
Genre Drama
Setting Chicago, early 1927

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is a 1982 play – one of the ten-play Pittsburgh Cycle by August Wilson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning American playwright – 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.

The play's title refers to a song of the same title by Ma Rainey referring to the Black Bottom dance.


In a Chicago-based recording studio, Ma Rainey's band players, Cutler, Toledo, Slow Drag, and Levee turn up to record a new album of her songs. As they wait for her to arrive they banter, tell stories, joke, philosophise and argue. As the play unfolds it becomes clear that the tension is between the young hot-headed trumpeter Levee, who has dreams of having his own band, and veteran players Cutler and Toledo.

By the time Ma Rainey does turn up in full regalia and entourage in tow, the recording schedule is badly behind, throwing the white producers Sturdyvant and Irvin into more and more irate disarray. Ma's insistence that her stuttering nephew Sylvester should do the voice intro to the title song causes more havoc. As the band waits for various technical problems to be resolved, the conflict between Levee and Cutler reaches boiling point and violence ensues. Finally, when Levee is simultaneously fired from the band by Ma for his insubordination and then rejected by Sturdyvant who had offered to record his songs his anger becomes too much and he stabs Toledo, killing him, thus 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
  • Policeman
  • Slow Drag, bassist
  • Sturdyvant studio owner
  • Sylvester, Ma's nephew
  • Toledo, pianist


It was produced 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.[1] It was enormously well received.

A Broadway revival opened on February 6, 2003 at the Royale Theatre, featuring Charles S. Dutton as Levee and Whoopi Goldberg as Ma. Directed by Marion McClinton, the show ran for 68 performances.

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.[2] The production starred O-T Fagbenle as Levee and Sharon D Clarke as Ma Rainey.

Awards and nominations[edit]

  • 1985 New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best American Play
  • 1985 Drama Desk Award Outstanding New Play
  • 1985 Tony Award for Best Play


  1. ^ "Other works for Clarke Peters". The Internet Movie Database. 2008. Retrieved 2008-09-18. 
  2. ^

Further reading[edit]

  • 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. 

External links[edit]