Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom: Cutting the historical record, dramatizing a blues CD

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (1984), Kim Pereira points out, resembles a jazz composition … [each musician's story at the outset] is like a solo performance in a jazz quartet that, though it possesses the characteristics of a 'set piece', is related to the major themes on an imagistic and emotional level … As the play moves along easily, its improvisatory cadences contain ever-quickening impulses that gather force toward a cataclysmic ending, like a shattering crescendo. Pereira's description, however, applies not only to Ma Rainey but, more generally, to Wilson's approach to drama. As I have written elsewhere, because his plays resemble a jazz set as much as they do a Euro-American play, we are confronted not with protagonist and antagonists, but rather with the tension of interpretive energy, as a community of players play off one another's solos. If they tend at times to play variations on recognizable themes, the synergy of the interaction creates unexpected and exciting results rather as in a piece by Duke Ellington or John Coltrane. Nor is it only a matter of style. Wilson's use of the blues instantiates an alternative form of historiography so that a blues rendition can have the same status for African American culture as a history text. 'The thing about the blues', Wilson has said, 'is that there's an entire philosophical system at work. And whatever you want to know about the black experience in America is contained in the blues.' If Wilson's drama is fundamentally structured by blues performance, his ten-play cycle can be thought of as a record (or CD) album that orchestrates and arranges the American twentieth century as ten versions of African American blues, played by a combo with one to three singers.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Cambridge Companion to August Wilson
Number of pages11
ISBN (Electronic)9781139001748
StatePublished - Jan 1 2007

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© Cambridge University Press 2007 and 2008.

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities (all)


Dive into the research topics of 'Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom: Cutting the historical record, dramatizing a blues CD'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this