The Personal Effects Of Widespread Social Issues In Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

1245 words - 5 pages

August Wilson’s highly acclaimed play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is set in Chicago in the late 1920’s. The main character, Ma Rainey, is an African American blues singer, and she is managed by a white music producer named Irvin. Levee, the youngest of four band members, takes on a surprisingly dominant role in the play. Anyone can open a history text book and learn about the general social issues that were present in the early nineteen hundreds. Wilson takes this history lesson one step further, and shows his readers the affects of these racial issues on a personal level. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom shows how the disrespect and exploitation of young African Americans in the music industry can ...view middle of the document...

Before Ma Rainey arrives to the studio, Sturdyvant is clear he wants this recording session to be different from the last: “I just want to get her in here… record those songs on that list… and get her out. Just like clockwork” (Wilson 18). Sturdyvant’s comparison to clockwork, an inanimate system of repetition, shows how impersonal he is towards Ma. Ma Rainey is merely used for her talent and not given the basic respect all people deserve. Wilson also explores the economic power of whites: “Set in Chicago in 1927, the play exposes the exploitation of blues musicians by the white moguls of the recording industry” (Usekes 88). African Americans did not have the power to produce their own music, so this exploitation was the only way for them to utilize their talents. This explains why Ma and Levee put themselves in this position. This was the only way for them to make income from their talents.
As the most profitable talent in the play, Ma Rainey receives a lot of the aforementioned maltreatment, but instead of letting this tear her down, she uses it to empower herself. Irvin decides to alter a song without Ma’s permission, but Ma decides to firmly stand her ground: “You decided, huh? I’m just a bump on the log. I’m gonna go whichever way the river drift. Is that it?” (Wilson 63). This is an overreaction on Ma’s part because the lengthy fight with Irvin is disproportional to the small changes he made to the song. Irvin expects her to be obedient and pliable. Ma asks if she is supposed to mindlessly obey them; this is an allusion to the cruelty of slavery. Irvin calmly tries to convince Ma that the changes to the song would make it “what the people want,” but she refuses to change her stance: “What you all say don’t count with me. You understand? Ma listens to her heart. Ma listens to the voice inside her. That’s what counts with Ma” (Wilson 63). Ma aggressively takes the power away from the white males by plainly saying only her opinion counts. Ma does not even think about compromising, which seems harsh, but she feels, as a black woman, it is important for her to stand firmly against white men.
Ma Rainey is aware that the societal norm, especially from previous years, is that a black woman like her are supposed to be compliant with white males. When Ma argues with white men in the play, she does so with an intense defiance that is not seen from her anywhere else in the play. This is because she is not merely fighting for the heat to be...

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