Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom ★★★½

August Wilson's 1982 play, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom , was one of ten-plays in the writer's "Pittsburgh Cycle" (Rainey being the only one of the ten not set in Pittsburgh) that chronicled the twentieth century African-American experience. Like most if not all of Wilson's writing Ma Rainey was meant to "raise consciousness through theater". Wilson's writing of the Black experience was something I first encountered my senior year of high school via Fences. As a Caucasian who attended a school with a student body that was more or less split right down the middle when it came to racial ratios the African American experience was something that was present without being particularly regarded as drastically different. Maybe it was simply my naïveté, but in my fifteen to eighteen year-old mind it was as simple as the fact that slavery, racism, and Martin Luther King had happened, what they had to deal with was wrong and terrible, but the actions they took had been worth it and upended those injustices for future generations. We as a society had grown past the ignorance of such things and while that statement in and of itself may now ring of more ignorance than ever I genuinely believe if one were to ask any of the Black kids I attended high school with that many would agree they felt the same way. Obviously, this isn't a diatribe against the need to highlight the many injustices that have been inflicted upon African Americans throughout the twentieth century and into present day, but rather a slice of insight into just how powerful, eye-opening, and - most importantly - how necessary literature documenting the Black experience is. This is all to say that director George C. Wolfe's interpretation of Wilson's material focuses largely on the theme of the burden Black people feel to do something with their time in order to ensure prosperity for future generations. The idea many of these individuals aren't allowed to lead a life where such issues don't impact their day to day drives certain characters present in Ma Rainey to purpose while pushing others to the edge. Wilson's exploration of contradiction in this American life through faith versus vindication or expectation versus the truth of the matter transforms the heated racial tension of 1920's Chicago into a pertinent commentary on how a system designed on the promise of possibility grants equal opportunities for repression; all of which is conveyed through the mood of the blues.

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