Arts·Point of View

Understanding Black rage: Why Ma Rainey's Black Bottom couldn't be more timely

Amanda Parris reflects on August Wilson's breakthrough play, whose message is as relevant as ever nearly 100 years after its story takes place.

Amanda Parris reflects on August Wilson's breakthrough play

Alana Bridgewater stars in Soulpepper Theatre's production of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. (Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann/Courtesy of Soulpepper)

There is an urban legend that the gang war between the Bloods and the Crips in Los Angeles began in the '70s over a leather jacket. In 1972, Robert Ballou Jr. was killed for his coat — and so the myth (and the headlines) began. His death sparked a decades-long gang war that would go on to take tens of thousands of lives across the United States.

Ten years after this incident, August Wilson wrote a play called Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. (Warning: vague spoilers ahead.)

It ends with a murder, one that might seem similar. A Black man is killed by another Black man because of a conflict over a shoe, but the incident is not as straightforward as it sounds. In the two hours and 20 minutes that lead up to that final climactic moment, the audience is provided with deep context about these characters. And so, a tragedy that seems inexplicably irrational is now doused in a sorrowful understanding of the frustration and humiliation that made it almost inevitable.

Marcel Stuart (Sylvester), Virgilia Griffith (Dussie Mae) and Alana Bridgewater (Ma Rainey) in a scene from Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. (Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann/Courtesy of Soulpepper)

Black rage contextualized, historicized and humanized is something we need a lot more of right now. For too long it has been belittled with simplistic sensational headlines.  

Soulpepper's production of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is currently on stage in Toronto, with performances extended to June 9, and it could not be more timely. Directed by Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu, it is a captivating story of a conflict-ridden studio session in 1920s Chicago, featuring real life blues legend Ma Rainey (Alana Bridgewater).

Black rage contextualized, historicized and humanized is something we need a lot more of right now.

Arriving late to the the studio with her lover Dussie Mae (Virgilia Griffith), her cousin Sylvester (Marcel Stewart) and a police officer eager to arrest her (Derek Boyes), Rainey is an unapologetic tornado of demands.

She argues with the police officer, belittles her manager Irvin (Alex Poch-Goldin) and threatens the producer Sturdyvant (Diego Matamoros) without a second thought. She demands respect and does not hesitate to remind everyone that Ma Rainey is not replaceable. If she chooses to leave, the entire session is a flop.

She has Rihanna-level attitude and Beyoncé-degree standards. A simplistic assessment would label Ma Rainey a diva, but Wilson forces us to see more than that. It's remarkable to witness the brazen audacity of Ma Rainey, a Black, openly queer woman strategically wielding her rage and her talent as a weapon, decades before the Civil Rights Movement and the Sexual Revolution.

The play takes us back to the Jim Crow era — a time of deep fear as Black men were being lynched at record numbers across the country. She knows that she is being exploited and that her privilege is fragile and temporary, so she uses that privilege to demand small tastes of the life she also knows she deserves. This is a life where Ma Rainey refuses to sing without her Coca-Cola, where she demands opportunities for her family and forces white men to get down on their knees before acquiescing to their requests.

Marcel Stewart (Sylvester), Diego Matamoros (Sturdyvant), Alex Poch-Goldin (Irvin), Beau Dixon (Toledo), Neville Edwards (Slow Drag), and Alana Bridgewater (Ma Rainey). (Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann/Courtesy of Soulpepper)

Wilson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright whose work was thrust into the spotlight in 2016 when his play Fences was adapted into an Oscar-nominated feature film starring Denzel Washington (who also directed it) and Viola Davis (who won an Academy Award for her work). The film also scored Wilson a posthumous nomination for best adapted screenplay. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom was his breakthrough play — the first installment in the Pittsburgh Cycle, a 10-work series that tells comic and tragic stories of African American experiences in each decade of the 20th century.

Although Ma Rainey's name is in the title, the heart of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom — as with much of Wilson's work — truly belongs to the men whose names won't go down in history books. In this case, it's the band musicians. Much of the play is spent in the intimate quarters of the basement where they kill time rehearsing, joking and debating about spirituality, career goals and relationships. And it is here that we are given the context and history behind a rage that eventually bubbles over to the surface.

The set (designed by Ken Mackenzie) is organized as a three-tier structure. At the top is the control room, an enclosed space only accessible to Sturdyvant and Irvin, two white men who control the money, the infrastructure and the opportunities. Below them is the recording booth where Ma Rainey reigns supreme. Below her is the basement where the band musicians Toledo (Beau Dixon), Slow Drag (Neville Edwards), Cutler (Lindsay Owen Pierre) and Levee (Lovell Adams-Gray) are kept until they are called.

As an illustration of power, the visual hierarchy is clear. No one enters the control room at the top but Sturdyvant and Irvin — not even Ma Rainey. Her domain is the recording booth and what she says goes — until the rights to her voice are signed over to the men in charge.  

The musicians left in the basement are called "boys" by Irvin and Sturdyvant, and Rainey doesn't hesitate to remind them of who's boss when necessary. Each level has its own ceiling — a point where career ambitions are constrained by a power above. Ma Rainey strategically maneuvres her goals because she knows that her talent can only give her so much power; the musicians keep their expectations realistically low, thankful for a day's work.

It is in Levee, the ambitious trumpeter with fresh new ideas and a bombastic personality that we see the consequences for having the audacity of ambition in this rigid hierarchy. And we also witness the rage that bubbles each time his dreams and dignity are rejected.

Virgilia Griffith (Dussie Mae) and Lovell Adams-Gray (Levee) in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. (Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann/Courtesy of Soulpepper)

Levee doesn't plan to stay in the basement forever and his dreams of stardom and artistic innovation lead him to circumvent the hierarchy. He spends a week's worth of salary (and some gambling money) on a pair of flashy new shoes — a symbol for what distinguishes him from the other musicians. He attempts to charm his way into the good graces of Sturdyvant and Irvin, selling his songs and arrangements as the fresh new sound against Rainey's tired old tunes. He plays with fire flirting with Rainey's lover Dussie Mae, steamrolling over the boundaries of respect that Rainey has fiercely worked to erect.

There are some short-lived moments where success seems just within reach, but for most of the play Levee spends his time defending himself from ridicule. There is a tragic price to pay for his impetuous and unrefined audacity. The consistent humiliation that is an indelible part of racism boils over into an uncontrollable rage.

I've been thinking a lot about rage because I've been feeling it.

A lot of this rage began rising to the surface while I was reading Robyn Maynard's 2017 book, Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present. I shook with anger reading about the deep racism of Prime Minister John A. Macdonald. I cried over the stories of Audrey Smith and Chevranna Abdi.

I've been thinking a lot about rage because I've been feeling it.

Canada has managed to conceal from many of us the details of its past and in doing so has made it that much more difficult to trace how these patterns continue to resonate. This denial is fertile ground for simplistic analyses devoid of history or context. It also makes it impossible to organize your rage when you don't even know its lineage.

The Jim Crow era has long since passed, but the rage written about in this play remains because the indignities of racism are still a part of everyday Black life. In the past three weeks, there have been reports about police being called on a Black student napping in a common area at school, on two Black men waiting for a friend at Starbucks, on a Black man barbecuing in a park, on Black Canadian artists leaving their an AirBnB, on a Black real estate investor inspecting a property and on a group of Black women who were golfing "too slowly."

Rage is justified and understandable. As the play illustrates, that rage can be strategically deployed. But without the kind of rigorous contextual understanding that Wilson gives, with rage resigned to a sensational headline, we may be on the verge of also witnessing its tragic explosion — in the United States, but also maybe here too.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. Featuring Alana Bridgewater, Lovell Adams-Gray, Virgilia Griffith. Written by August Wilson. Directed by Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu. Presented by Soulpepper Theatre. To June 9. The Young Centre for Performing Arts, Toronto. www.soulpepper.ca

About the Author

Amanda Parris writes a weekly column for CBC Arts and is the host of Exhibitionists on CBC Television and Marvin's Room on CBC Radio. In her spare time, she writes plays, watches too many movies and defends Beyonce against all haters. In her past lives she wrote arts based curriculum, attended numerous acting auditions, and dreamed of being interviewed by Oprah.

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