Notes on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (10.01.2018)

The first thing that grabbed my attention was the plays introduction, written by the playwright, entitled simply, “The Play.” It immediately threw me back to the opening lines of Homer’s Odyssey,

Tell me, O muse, of that ingenious hero who travelled far and wide after he had sacked the famous town of Troy. Many cities did he visit, and many were the nations with whose manners and customs he was acquainted; moreover he suffered much by sea while trying to save his own life and bring his men safely home; but do what he might he could not save his men, for they perished through their own sheer folly in eating the cattle of the Sun-god Hyperion; so the god prevented them from ever reaching home. Tell me, too, about all these things, O daughter of Jove, from whatsoever source you may know them.

Of course, the most recent translation of that great classic appears in stanza form, so I decided to put Wilson’s opening in stanza form as well. Here is a sampling:

It is early march in Chicago, 1927.
These is a bit of a chill in the air.
Winter has broken but the wind
coming off the lake does not carry
the promise of spring. The people of the city
are bundled and brisk in their defense
against such misfortunes as the weather
and the business of the city proceeds
largely undisturbed. 

Chicago in 1927 is a rough city,
a bruising city,
a city of millionaire and derelicts,
gangsters and roughhouse dandies,
whores and Irish grandmothers who move
through its streets fingering long black rosaries.

Somewhere a man is wrestling
with the taste of a woman in his cheek.
Somewhere a dog is barking. Somewhere
the moon has fallen through a window
and broken into thirty pieces of silver.

The next thing I noted was the opening epigraph, a verse from a blues song by Blind Lemon Jefferson:

They tore that railroad down
so the Sunday Special can’t run
I’m going away baby
build me a railroad of my own.

I wasn’t familiar with that song or its singer, so of course I looked it up on YouTube!

And I wondered, why did Wilson use this as his opening? More on that after today’s discussion.

Unlike other Wilson plays, Ma Rainey begins with two white characters in a dialogue, the record company executive, Sturdyvant, and the manager, Irvin. Very few of Wilson’s plays even have white characters, much less in a prominent place like the opening (There is one in Gem of the Ocean, and the same character appears again in Joe Turner).

Later in Act one, after the opening dialogue that pretty much sets the scene, Wilson provides in the stage directions a carefully detailed description of each member of the band. I won’t produce it here, but that paragraph is worthy of our attention as it “plays” out over the course of the two acts.

A couple of other preliminary thoughts.

The play lays out a collection of Ma Rainey songs that she and the band rehearse and perform over the course of the play. These songs provide a good introduction to the sound of Ma Rainey and are still available. I put them all together here along with a couple of surprises:

The “surprises” include a Cutler monologue about Slow Drag, and a poem Wilson recites about his grandfather, also named Cutler, which I found a bit ironic, but maybe not so. Here is the latter:

And here is the transcription (so you can read along. Credits to Jeannie M on Youtube):

His chest stripped open to reveal a raven,
huge with sharp talons,
a song stuck in his throat
and beneath the feathers,
beneath the shudder and rage,
the pages of a book closed
and the raven took flight.

Bynum Cutler. Savage, mule trainer, singer,
shaper of wood and iron.
Bynum Cutler, who spread his seed
over the nine counties in North Carolina,
seed carried in the wind
by the wind in the sails of ships
and planted among the cane break,
among Georgia pine,
among boles of cotton planted
in the fertile fields of women
who snapped open like fresh berries,
like cities in full season welcoming its architects
and ennobling them with gifts of blood.

A central character named Bynum appears in a later (earlier) play, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. So his grandfather (who Wilson never knew) appears twice in his plays.

Apart from the weaving storylines and the evolving plots and subplots that we will discuss, I’d like to include here two other mentions. One is Toledo’s pontifications about African Conceptualism, a real thing that existed (and exists) in the study of modern African art, and in Wole Soyinka’s treatment of African drama (See “Myth, Literature and the African World) but much later than 1927 where this play was set. Still I think there may be a connection. Second is the passing, but not so passing, mention of Booker T. Washington, a figure revered by Wilson throughout his writings and interviews.

Finally, here is a link to an article about the real life Ma Rainey to put it all in historic perspective:

https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/the-queer-black-woman-who-reinvented-the-blues

And a link to the earlier notes on Ma Rainey in this blog:

https://raymonddmaxwell.com/2018/03/08/some-links-to-background-material-for-ma-raineys-black-bottom/

OK. Let’s discuss.

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