Up until the end of the first act, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” was to me a story about a day in the life of the singer Gertrude “Ma” Rainey’s band. Most of the action in this act takes place among the band members as they wait on Ma Rainey in the basement rehearsal room of a white-owned Chicago recording studio.
I quickly learned that this was supposed to be the day of the recording of the famous blues song, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and other notable Ma Rainey tunes. The time is 1927, when both the blues and the commercial recording industry were on the rise in America. This was also during the beginning stages of the great migration of African-Americans from the south to the north. The music of Ma Rainey is a historical marker of that time.
In this act, Levee, a talented trumpeter and the youngest of the band members, is going back and forth about how great he is to Toledo, Slow Drag, and Cutler. He is boastful and believes that his talents will soon control the emerging blues circuit, replacing Ma’s control, but the older men know all too well that Levee has a long way to go before he reaches that peak.
Before rehearsing, the members talk amongst themselves, each recalling a story in their lives about a personal pain or pleasure, a longing that they had - much of the stuff that you find in the blues. As they begin to play, the lights dim and go up on the recording studio where Ma Rainey makes her grand entrance. The band’s story recedes and does not fully come to light until the end of the play.
The spotlight stays on Ma Rainey, played by the actress Yvette Freeman. I was personally struck by the sheer awesomeness that Freeman brought to the role. I will never have the chance to meet Ma Rainey, personally, but I feel that I know her from Freeman’s masterful portrayal of the woman called “Mother of the Blues.”
Ma Rainey dominates the script, seizing ultimate control of the story. It begins when she halts the production process by coming late and taking advantage of the studio owner’s precious time. It continues when she refuses to sing until she gets her complimentary bottle of Coke. While she waits on it, she says of the white men to Cutler, “[They] Wanna take my voice and trap it in them fancy boxes with all them buttons and dials…and then too cheap to buy me a Coca-Cola. And it don’t cost but a nickel a bottle.”
Act two begins with Ma Rainey demanding that Sylvester, her nephew, introduce her on the recording despite his stifling stutter. In the time that it takes Sylvester to say the intro right, money is wasted on each take but Ma guides him through until he gets it. This demonstration of control is actually an act of love that is more valuable than the blues and the money that Sturdyvant (the white studio-owner) will ever make off of the recording.
In a final stroke of power Ma Rainey insists, before leaving, that Sturdyvant pay Sylvester for his time, which he does. It is both believable and unbelievable that a black woman at that time could take control, but she does.
After the recording and back in the rehearsal room, the other drama unfolds. The members of the band are packing up their equipment and waiting to get paid for the day. Levee, who was also fired by Ma Rainey that day, instigates a fight with Cutler and another one with Toledo. The conflict between him and Toledo escalates into a violent act that concludes the story concerning the band.
Ma Rainey’s story illuminates a very special person at a time when we rarely got to see the real story behind the music. I was moved by August Wilson’s ability to tell a story rich in history, culture, and universal themes. Anyone interested in American popular music should see this production of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” August Wilson’s first Broadway hit. This production completes the Huntington Theatre’s mounting of Wilson’s entire Century Cycle, a series of plays that tell a story about black life during a particular decade of the 20th Century.
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” continues through Sunday, April 8 at Huntington Theatre Company, 264 Huntington Avenue, Boston; (617) 266-7900, huntingtontheatre.org.
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About the AuthorBridgit Brown
Bridgit Brown is a graduate of the MFA program in Creative Writing at Emerson College ('98). She was a Fulbright Lecturing and Research Scholar in Cote d'Ivoire, West Africa, and her writing has appeared in the Boston Globe, Boston Herald, Bay State Banner, Color Magazine, BasicBlack.org: Black Perspectives Now, Colorlines of Architecture, Exhale Magazine, Ibbetson Street Magazine, and Somerville Review.