Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom ( #AugustWilson #CenturyCycle, 3 of 10)

August Wilson’s Century Cycle >  Spoiler-free scene breakdown

  • Premiered: 1984.
  • Setting: a recording studio in Chicago, 1927.
  • 10 characters

An opening note describes the context of the city and the significance of blues music.

Act I

Money-man Sturdyvant orders manager Irvin to keep “her” in line. To Sturdyvant, this is all just business. When band leader Cutler, bassist Slow Drag, and pianist Toledo enter, Sturdyvant is annoyed that Ma isn’t with them. Neither is the trumpet player Levee. Irvin hands Cutler a list of songs that’s different from what Ma told the band to rehearse. With money he won from Cutler, Levee has bought new shoes. He is young and ambitious; the other men are here to do their job. Toledo has some book learning and intellectual ability; Levee dismisses him as old-fashioned and “just like the white man” (42). Irvin tells the band to rehearse Levee’s arrangement of Ma Rainey’s signature song. Slow Drag tells a story about a man who sold his soul to the devil.

Sandwiches arrive in the control booth; Ma arrives with her assistant (girlfriend?) Dussie Mae and nephew Sylvester. A policeman reports he wants to arrest Ma after she apparently got aggressive after a minor traffic altercation; Ma and her crew dispute’s the cop’s story; Irvin gives the cop a bribe, and he leaves.

As the band eats sandwiches, Cutler tells how Slow Drag got his name (he cleverly avoided a knife fight while dancing a slow drag dance). The band squabbles over the few remaining sandwiches and Toledo gives his “stew” monologue about being the nation’s leftovers. The band rehearses Levee’s arrangement.

Ma settles into the recording studio, discussing shoes, Tussie Mae’s dress, and new clothes for Sylvester. Irvin tries to reassures Ma about her car and about Levee’s music; Ma tells Cutler that Sylvester will do the intro.

In the band room, Levee fawns over Sturdyvant, trying to sell him new songs; the band members mock Levee for being so subservient; Levee tells a harrowing story about how his father strategically flattered white men.

Act II

In studio, Tussie Mae attracts Levee’s attention; Cutler tells Irvin that Sylvester can’t do his part, but Ma insists. After a false start, Ma asks for her contractual Coke, but Irvin forgot it; Ma insists, and the recording session pauses. Ma tells Cutler she knows the producers only care about her voice, which is why she’s making sure they do things her way. Slow Drag and Sylvester to out to get Ma’s Cokes.

Dussie Mae visits the band room, where Levee pours on the charm; they start to get physical.

Ma, Cutler and Toledo discuss the blues, until Sylvester and Slow Drag return with the Cokes.

Slow Drag interrupts Levee and Dussie Mae kissing, and says the session is starting again.

After some false starts, the recording session seems to go well, only a plug near Levee has come unplugged, ruining the take. Tensions start to break out, and Ma threatens to leave.

Cutler warns Levee to stay away from Dussie Mae, who he describes as “Ma’s gal.” Toledo discusses his past with women, contrasting Levee’s hotheadedness. Cutler tells his story of the good Reverend Gates, who was forced to dance by a mob of white men. Cutler challenges Levee for crossing a particular line, and Levee pulls out a knife, at first brandishing it against Cutler, then picking another target.

Nested climaxes involve Ma’s sense of self worth, Levee’s ambition, and… well, I don’t want to spoil the ending.