August Wilson Brings Ma Rainey to Life in Jim Crow America
by Barry Thornton
August Wilson’s 1920s Jazz Age play opens with a mic check in a small recording studio in Chicago, as Irvin and Mel, two white men, are arguing about recording Ma Rainey, famed Mother of the Blues. “I can handle her, Mel,” says Irvin. No such luck.
Ma Rainey cannot be handled. And it is not just Ma, it’s also her band.
August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” forms one part of his amazing run of ten plays–one for every decade of the twentieth century. Wilson masterfully brings alive the hopes, dreams, and nightmares of Black people in white supremacist America. “Ma Rainey” handles the 20s.
The “run-down practice room” in a 1927 Chicago recording studio are crowded into a small space, overflowing with action. And from inside the claustrophobic studio, we hear about the world outside: wrenching stories of near lynchings and rape. Ma’s late entrance is caused by a Chicago policeman who is harassing her. Irv has to bribe him.
But all is not grim. How do you settle the bet over whether you spell music “musik” or “music” in a room full of people who do not know how to spell? There are jokes, debate, and boasts. The four clashing Black band members argue and philosophize–while they practice, eat, and wait for Ma to show up. Pursuing the meaning of life, Toledo opines: “Black people are too focused on having a good time.” Slow Drag counters, “What’s wrong with having a good time, anyway?” These four consummate musicians thrive on their disagreements.
Levee and Cutler come to blows over religion when Levee argues that God has allowed horrors to happen to Black people. Assertive Levee tells the wrenching story of his mother’s rape by four white Southerners, when he was a child in the South. Levee asks, “If God allows that, then selling your soul to the devil makes a lot of sense!” Cutler the elder and band leader has no reply.
And, of course, how to deal with the white man. Levee burns with aspiration and drive to write his own songs and form his own band. But he gets criticized for shuffling and saying “Yassir” to Mel, the white owner of the recording studio. Levee wants to surpass old-fashioned “jug band music,” his ‘dis’ on the country-style blues that Ma sings. But his path runs through the white people who own the studios. He claims that he can use them; he wants to stand up to them like Ma.
And there is the music. Ma Rainey, Mother of the Blues, knows that the white producers do not care about her. They want to use her to make money.
“You don’t sing to make people happy,” Ma explains, “you sing to bring people a better understanding of life.” She says, “You have to fill up that emptiness that people feel. I didn’t start the blues . . . I just stretched it out a bit to fill in the empty spaces.”
When Susie Butler sings “Ma’s Black Bottom,” you know she did go to some empty spaces the church did not:
Now I’m gonna show y’all my big black bottom
They stay to see that dance
Wait until you see me do my big black bottom
I’ll put you in a trance.
Ah, do it Ma, do it, honey
Look it now Ma, you gettin’ kinda rough here
You gotta be yourself now, careful now
Not too strong, not too strong, Ma.
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is very strong indeed.
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” by August Wilson, directed & designed by Lewis Campbell, by Multi Ethnic Theater (MET), at ACT’s Costume Shop, San Francisco, through Sunday, September 1, 2019. Info: wehavemet.org
Cast: Joseph Walter, Ric Wenzel, Vernon Medearis, Ernest White, Gift Harris, Nathaniel Montgomery, Susie Butler, Dylan Terrill, Kyla Kinner, and Alex Loi.
Banner photo: Nathaniel Montgomery, Susie Butler, Vernon Medearis, Gift Harris. In front: Ernest White.