Art and Culture · Literature

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

The Real Ma Rainey and Her band - imjussayin.com

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom set in 1927 is an impressive play with an interesting history.  It centres on power dynamics: racism, self-determination, economics and change.  I enjoyed the London performance.  This play remains relevant on gender inequality and cultural appropriation.  I also went away with a better understanding of recent gang violence.  The play illustrates the ‘tragic-comedy’ rhythm of black life which sadly continues.

Afro-American playwright Augustus Wilson wrote Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom in 1982.  It was only the second non-musical play by a black author to be performed on Broadway in 1985.  The first play, Lorraine Hansberry’s drama A Raisin In The Sun was some 36 years earlier.

Ma Rainey is a metaphor for power and limited self-determination.  Mel (studio owner) and Irvin, her manager, discuss Ma in the opening act.  They consider Ma diva-esque (troublesome), but both white men are prepared to ‘put up’ with Ma because she makes a lot of money for them, more than for herself.

Interestingly, what these men consider as diva-esque is a personal dignity and self-determination.  For example, Ma wants to record her song Black Bottom in its original Country Blues style.  Mel wants it recorded in the emerging city style of Jazz: a black subculture.  He makes secret arrangements with Ma’s band member Levee to rehearse the song in Jazz.  Mel has the money and the studio but Ma owns the song and has built a fan-base.

The lyrics and dance for Ma’s Black Bottom, contain strong sexual overtones.  This overt sexualisation continues to dominate Black women’s music.  For example, Rhianna’s fashion and crude gyrations with Drake in the 2016 video Work.  Music companies have complete control.  Arguably, female artists have less power than Ma!

Levee from the National Theatre Production London | imjussayin.com

Ma has limited power however her band has none.  Levee is ambitious.  Mel promised him a recording deal so he re-arranged Ma’s song.  When Ma sacks him, for numerous reasons, he is unconcerned because he has a deal.  Only Mel reneges.   Worse, Mel is not rejecting Levee’s songs; just Levee.  Mel wants to capitalise on Jazz the new black music and record them.  Mel does not negotiate but forces $5 per song on Levee.

Levee has no control over his life and is left broken, bitter and angry. This emotional state has tragic consequences.  I find this powerlessness reflected in our society in seemingly senseless acts of violence.

Mel controls Levee’s work and has appropriated black culture which will be packaged and sold.  The lion’s share divided by white society.  This cultural appropriation continues today with the same financial result.  Examples include Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber.

I have touched upon a few threads.  The theatre production has ended but the play is worth reading.  The use of the N* word is not authentic to the period.  However, the politics are and remain relevant:  gender inequality; lack of economic parity and self-determination for Black people and power is concentrated in the hands of few.

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