|Ma Rainey's Black Bottom|
|Written by||August Wilson|
|Place premiered||Eugene O'Neill Theater Center|
|Series||The Pittsburgh Cycle|
|Subject||A blues group waits to get to work in the studio, and tempers flare.|
|Setting||Chicago, early 1927|
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is a 1982 play – one of the ten-play Pittsburgh Cycle by August Wilson – that chronicles the 20th-century African-American experience. The play is set in Chicago in the 1920s, and deals with issues of race, art, religion and the historic exploitation of black recording artists by white producers.
The play's title comes from Ma Rainey's song of the same name, which refers to the Black Bottom dance. Rainey, whose life as a well-known blues-singer of the 1920s is an inspiration for the play, is also the titular character.
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom was published in the early 1980s and premiered at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center. Its Broadway debut at the Cort Theatre in 1984 won a New York Drama Critics' Circle award and garnered a Tony Award nomination for Best Play.
In a Chicago recording studio, Ma Rainey's band players Cutler, Toledo, Slow Drag, and Levee gather to record a new album of her songs. As they wait for her to arrive they tell stories, joke, philosophize, and argue. Tension is apparent between the young hot-headed trumpeter Levee, who dreams of having his own band, and veterans Cutler and Toledo.
By the time Ma Rainey arrives with entourage in tow, recording has fallen badly behind schedule, enraging white producers Sturdyvant and Irvin. Ma's insistence that her stuttering nephew Sylvester speak the title song's introduction wreaks further havoc. As the band waits for various technical problems to be solved, Levee and Cutler come to blows. Levee is then simultaneously fired by Ma and rejected by producer Sturdyvant and in rage fatally stabs Toledo, destroying any possibility of a future for himself.
The play had its first staged reading in 1982 at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut. The four main members of the cast -- Charles S. Dutton as Levee, Joe Seneca as Cutler, Leonard Jackson as Slow Drag, and Robert Judd as Toledo—almost immediately developed a very strong sense of ensemble. At that time, the best-known actor in the cast was Theresa Merritt, who played Ma.
Direction was by Lloyd Richards, one of August Wilson's most frequent collaborators. Richards and Wilson worked together for almost two years on the play. It opened at the Yale Repertory Theater in April 1984, and then moved to Broadway's Cort Theatre. The show opened on October 11, 1984 and show ran for 276 performances. It received a 1985 Tony Award nomination for Best Play; Dutton and Merritt were nominated for acting awards.
It was first performed in the UK at the Royal National Theatre in London in 1989 in a production by Howard Davies starring Clarke Peters and Hugh Quarshie as Toledo and Levee. It was enormously well received.
Subsequent UK revivals have taken place in Liverpool at the Playhouse starring Melanie La Barrie as Ma and Cornelius Macarthy as Levee (2004, direction: Gemma Bodinetz) and the Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre in a production starring Antonio Fargas as Toledo, Ram John Holder as Slow Drag, and Johnnie Fiori as Ma (2006, direction: Jacob Murray).
In 2016 the National Theatre in London revived the show to great critical acclaim, garnering a Laurence Olivier award for best revival. The production starred O-T Fagbenle as Levee and Sharon D. Clarke as Ma Rainey.
In 2019 it was announced that Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo and Michael Potts are to star in a film adaptation for Netflix, produced by Denzel Washington alongside Todd Black and Dany Wolf, and directed by George C. Wolfe. The film is also Boseman's final performance prior to his death in 2020 from colorectal cancer.
Cast and characters
|Characters||1984 Original Broadway cast||2003 Broadway revival||2020 Film adaptation|
|Ma Rainey||Theresa Merritt||Whoopi Goldberg||Viola Davis|
|Levee (trumpeter)||Charles S. Dutton||Chadwick Boseman|
|Slow Drag (bassist)||Leonard Jackson||Stephen McKinley Henderson||Michael Potts|
|Toledo (pianist)||Robert Judd||Thomas Jefferson Byrd||Glynn Turman|
|Cutler (trombonist)||Joe Seneca||Carl Gordon||Colman Domingo|
|Irvin (Ma's manager)||Lou Criscuolo||Jack Davidson||Jeremy Shamos|
|Sturdyvant (studio owner)||John Carpenter||Louis Zorich||Jonny Coyne|
|Dussie Mae||Aleta Mitchell||Heather Alicia Simms||Taylour Paige|
|Sylvester (Ma's nephew)||Scott Davenport-Richards||Anthony Mackie||Dusan Brown|
|Policeman||Christopher Loomis||Tony Cucci||Joshua Harto|
Awards and nominations
- 1985 New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best American Play
- Nemy, Enid "A 'Ma Rainey' Quartet Plays Its Own Special Music."
- "Other works for Clarke Peters". The Internet Movie Database. 2008. Retrieved 2008-09-18.
- "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2015-04-27. Retrieved 2015-04-15.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
- Williams, Trey "Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman to Star in August Wilson’s ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ Film for Netflix – Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo and Michael Potts will also star in the adaptation of award-winning play"
- Wilson, August (1985). Ma Rainey's Black Bottom: A Play in Two Acts (First ed.). New York: New American Library. ISBN 0-452-25684-4.