Some takeaways and some links to background material for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Time flies and already I am half way through my first reading of Week 3’s Fences (I am finding I need to read through these plays at least two times to really “get” it). But before getting too far away, I want to put down on paper some reflections on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

I mentioned towards the end of the session a proposal that the star of the play is not Ma Rainey. I believe the star is Levee, even though his end at the play’s conclusion is not a pleasant nor a pleasing one. Levee is the modernist, he represents the avant-garde, the next wave in musical composition, while Ma represents the old, entrenched way, the “old jug band music” to which Levee repeatedly refers.

Here is an interesting article on the historical Ma Rainey:

The Queer Black Woman Who Reinvented The Blues https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/the-queer-black-woman-who-reinvented-the-blues

https://www.memphisflyer.com/memphis/jitney-is-august-wilsons-underappreciated-masterpiece/Content?oid=12932362

But Levee has his own issues. He was emotionally traumatized as a child, forced to watch the gang-rape of his mother, then physically traumatized when he tried to stop the rape with a knife and was slashed with the knife across his chest. He was further traumatized when his father, seeking to exact revenge against the rapists (and successful in killing four of them), was caught, hung and burned in the woods. Wilson describes Levee in the scene-setter as flamboyant and buffoonish, as playing the wrong notes frequently, and as often confusing his skill with his talent.

Still, he is the star of the play, the archetype for Louis Armstrong, who as a young man played trumpet in Ma Rainey’s band.  See Louis Armstrong, the First Great American Modernist here: Was Louis Armstrong the First Great American Modernist?. My question is, was Wilson gently leading us to this conclusion?

We also took note of Levee’s obsession with shoes, getting into arguments twice in the play when band members “stepped” on his shoes, the final act resulting in an enraged Levee committing the knifing murder of the band leader, Toledo. We discussed in class the possible symbolism of Levee’s fixation on his shoes, although the class did not all agree that shoes may have symbolized mobility, transportation, moving out of a bad situation and moving towards a good or better one. I personally thought the shoe symbolism concept was one with merit, and I found myself on YouTube listening to Robert Johnson’s original “Walkin’ Blues” and more recent covers of the Johnson masterpiece by Eric Clapton and Jerry Garcia (Grateful Dead) (videos below).

Levee has yet another thematic connection to Robert Johnson. It is said that Robert Johnson “sold” his soul to the devil in exchange for his music talent. Levee mentions in two separate conversations his willingness to “sell” his soul to Satan in conjunction with his overall rejection of Christianity and more traditional beliefs. We saw that “skepticism” expressed by Becker in Jitney, and we’ll see it again with Troy in Fences. Maybe this is another conclusion Wilson himself is leading us to – skepticism as a humanist element of modern thought.

Some notes for today’s discussion on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Week Two – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

  1. Only play not set in Pittsburgh. Set in Chicago.
  2. 2nd play in series but Wlson considered it the first play in the cycle of decade plays.
  3. Actually two plays merged into one.
  4. In irony of all ironies, Broadway producers wanted Wilson to Turn it into a musical for better chance of commercial success. Instead, Wilson debuted it at Yale Rep in its original form, cementing a long and productive relationship with mentor, Lloyd Richards, Yale Rep director.
  5. Play is a bit of the three ring circus:
    1. Irvin, Sturdyvant, and Ma.
    2. Ma. Dussie, and Sylvester.
    3. Cutler, Slow Drag, Toledo, and Levee (the band)
  6. And minor constellations:
    1. Dussie and Levee
    2. Ma and Cutler
    3. Slow Drag and Cutler
    4. Toledo and Cutler
    5. Levee and Sturdyvant

OK. As promised, the Walkin’ Blues videos:

Robert Johnson original

Eric Clapton cover

Grateful Dead (Jerry Garcia) cover

Here is the link to the whole website from Minnesota Public Radio: 
This link provides a speech August Wilson gave in Minnesota in 1991. The speech is not specific to any particular Wilson play, but provides rich background to character and plot development for all his plays.     https://www.mprnews.org/listen?name=/minnesota/news/features/2016/12/23/augustwilson_archives_ek_20161223_64.mp3
Here is the playbill from the Yale Repertory Theater’s production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom: 
Director and cast discuss Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom before opening night
Director and cast discuss Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom production

postscript.
https://www.thoughtco.com/flappers-in-the-roaring-twenties-1779240

“In the 1920s, flappers broke away from the Victorian image of womanhood. They dropped the corset, chopped their hair, dropped layers of clothing to increase ease of movement, wore make-up, created the concept of dating, and became a sexual person. In breaking away from conservative Victorian values, flappers created what many considered the “new” or “modern” woman.”

https://www.thoughtco.com/the-jazz-singer-1779241

“When The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson, was released as a feature-length movie on October 6, 1927, it was the first movie that included dialogue and music on the filmstrip itself.

Adding Sounds to Film

“Before The Jazz Singer, there were silent films. Despite their name, these films were not silent for they were accompanied by music. Often, these films were accompanied by a live orchestra in the theater and from as early as 1900, films were often synchronized with musical scores that were played on amplified record players.

“The technology advanced in the 1920s when Bell Laboratories developed a way to allow an audio track to be placed on the film itself. This technology, called Vitaphone, was first used as a musical track in a film titled Don Juan in 1926. Although Don Juan had music and sound effects, there were no spoken words in the film.”

2 thoughts on “Some takeaways and some links to background material for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

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