tENTATIVELY, cONVENIENCE's Reviews > Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom by August Wilson
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bookshelves: plays

Each thing to be reviewed seems to present unique challenges for me. & each has a personal history for me too. For the past 4 mnths or so I've been almost entirely reviewing bks somehow connected to my friend Amy. In this case, she was visiting me in Pittsburgh & we went to a Half-Price Books. The August Wilson Center for African-American Culture is here in Pittsburgh & I had never been there & planned to go for the 1st time w/ Amy. W/ this in mind, I picked up this play & somewhat coincidentally picked up a bk w/ Edward Albee's play "The Death of Bessie Smith" in it at the same time. Wilson was born in Pittsburgh's "Hill District" wch I live at the edge of.

I often appraise things in terms of their historical place in terms of innovation. As such, I'll usually look to the earliest work that has distinctive characteristics that're either developed by others later or that remain distinct. However, w/ works where the author's intent has little or nothing to do w/ such lineages of innovation, it seems inappropriate to judge it in such terms. That seems to be the case here.

This play is about racism (& other things) - set in the context of a recording session of Gertrude "Ma" Rainey & her band in Chicago in March of 1927. The harsh absurdity & social commentary make it seem surprisingly close in spirit to Albee's plays & after I finished reading this I went straight to reading Albee's "The Death of Bessie Smith" to compare the 2.

The humor revolves around the all-too-human weaknesses & strengths & cantankerousnesses of all the characters, the shallowness & the depth. "Ma" Rainey is of the (presumably accurate) opinion that the white men running the recording sessions cd care less about her as a black woman & will throw her away after she no longer makes them any money. On page 72, Wilson has Rainey say: "As soon as they get my voice down on them recording machines, then it's just like if I'd be some whore and they roll over and put their pants on. Ain't got no use for me then." & she makes sure to boss them around & to get what she can out of the situation while she can.

All in all, despite the underlying tragedy of the socio-political content, Wilson manages to have a sense of humor. What's unclear to me is whether many readers wd find his characters to be caricatures. Now I sometimes consider myself to be an absurdist - & the trio of Absurdist playwrights that I most often think of is Alfred Jarry, Albee, & Eugene Ionesco. I wonder if Wilson was familiar w/ their work &, if so, what he thought about it. For me, one of the beauties of absurdism is its ability to, at least symbolically, rearrange the 'harsh realities' of life in order to take more control over them. Like its stepsister granduncle godnephew "nonsense", absurdism's like a thunderstorm that helps clear the air of stuffiness - & Wilson seems to have a healthy dose of this ability - even while he still manages to be a realist.

The play's title, "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom", named after an actual Gertrude Rainey song, is, to me, a beautiful example of in-yr-face bombastic absurdist humor. Here's an excerpt from the lyrics as transcribed in Angela Y. Davis' bk Blues Legacies and Black Feminism (the next bk for me to read in this thread):

"The other night at a swell affair
Soon as the boys found out that I was there
They said, "Come on, Ma, let's go to the cabaret."
When I got there, you ought to hear me say

"Want to see the dance you call the black bottom
I wanna learn that dance
Want to see the dance you call your big black bottom
They put you in a trance.

"All the boys in the neighborhood
They say your black bottom is really good
Come on and show me your black bottom
I want to learn that dance."

The double entendre of "black bottom"'s being both a dance & an anatomical reference seems to function at various levels: to bypass censorship but still have a liberated frank sexuality & as if to say 'Kiss my black ass if you don't like it!'

Naturally, the play is a DRAMA so it pushes the DRAMA angle &, therefore, probably has more strife in a short period of time than might be expected from an ordinary recording session. Here's some dialog amongst the band while they wait for Rainey to show:

"SLOW DRAG: Well, the colored man's gonna be all right. He got through slavery, and he'll get through whatever else the white man put on him. I ain't worried about that. Good times is what makes life worth living. Now, you take the white man . . . The white man don't know how to have a good time. That's why he's troubled all the time. He don't know how to have a good time. He don't know how to laugh at life.

LEVEE: That's what the problem is with Toledo . . . reading all them books and things. He done got to the point where he forgot how to laugh and have a good time. Just like the white man.

TOLEDO: I know how to have a good time as well as the next man. I said, there's got to be more to life than having a good time. I said the colored man ought to be doing more than just trying to have a good time all the time.

LEVEE: Well, what is you doing, nigger? Talking all them highfalutin ideas about making a better world for the colored man. What is you doing to make it better? You playing the music and looking for your next piece of pussy same as we is. What is you doing? That's what I wanna know. Tell him Cutler.

CUTLER: You all leave Cutler out of this. Cutler ain't got nothing to do with it.

TOLEDO: Levee, you just about the most ignorant nigger I know. Sometimes I wonder why I ever bother to try and talk with you."

Wilson does "know how to laugh at life" & he does an excellent job of it here at the same time that he conveys the racist environment - like someone who's both experienced it & someone who's been "reading all them books and things." & the play's rich in its range of topics - mainly thru the vehicle of the bandmembers talking to each other while they wait & argue about what to rehearse.

The whole feel of the bk, the single color printing of the cover, eg, & of the play, the minimal props, is of theater w/o much funding. Again I'm reminded of Albee (& his minimal set design). The play's designed to be something do-able under low-budget conditions. & I like that about it. & relate to it (although I imagine that the theater companies that Wilson worked w/ had way more money for the plays than I've ever had for any of my own productions).

There's one issue that Wilson's historical place brings up for me, that isn't addressed in the play, that I'll preface w/ this: "Wilson was born Frederick August Kittel, Jr. in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the fourth of seven children to German immigrant baker, Frederick August Kittel, Sr. and Daisy Wilson, an African American cleaning woman, from North Carolina." (from WikiPedia's bio of Wilson) Now it's not clear to me whether Frederick Kittel was 'white' or not but the ethnic background seems to imply that. So, here we run up against the usual: if a child is born to a white & black couple the child is considered to be black. Isn't the reason for that racist?

In other words, in Nazi Germany anyone w/ any Jewish heritage was considered to be a Jew &, therefore, subhuman. The whole underlying belief of racial purists is that any 'race mixing' taints whatever race the racist in question thinks is the supreme race. Therefore, a white man having kids w/ a black woman yields black kids - the kids aren't 'pure' in the eyes of white supremacists. But what about those of us who aren't white supremacists? What about those of us who think that dividing races into "black & white" is ultimately ridiculous? (despite my having done so for the purposes of this review due to the relevance of such divisions to the subject of this bk)

At any rate, I hope I live to see the day when, as the anti-racist political slogan has it, "There's only one race, the human race" - but I'm not holding my breath for it. I also hope that, someday, I'll read all of Wilson's 10 Pittsburgh plays. After all, they're mostly set w/in a mile or 2 or 3 of my house & I'm sure I've got alot to learn from them.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
November 23, 2010 – Finished Reading
November 24, 2010 – Shelved
November 24, 2010 – Shelved as: plays

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