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February Is Black History Month
I had originally intended to review all of the late August Wilson's Century Cycle plays at the same time. On reflection this is such an important series about sketches of black cultural life in the 20th century that I decided to review each one separately. Below is a list of the ten plays to be reviewed over the next several months.
The August Wilson Century Cycle
Gem Of The Ocean (1904)
Joe Turner's Come And Gone (1911)
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1927)
The Piano Lesson(1936)
Seven Guitars (1948)
Two Trains Running(1969)
King Hedley II (1985)
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1927), August Wilson, New American Library, New York, 1981
Readers of this space know that over the past year or so I have highlighted the musical works of various acoustic and electric black blues performers, mainly the former. The hidden question posed by those performers and subsequently by this reviewer is- "What are the blues?" The answers I have given have ranged from the perennial- "the blues is the dues" to old Lightnin' Hopkins' refrain- "the blues ain't nothing but a good woman on your mind". Playwright August Wilson posed this very question in this his first, I believe, play "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom". His answer is far more profound that mine could ever be when he has Ma say the blues are "way of understanding life". And then proceeds in his little beauty of a play to give a black version of the way that life played out.
The story line of this play is fairly straight forward, although probably an unusually theme for a serious play, about the trails and tribulations of blacks recording blues records in Chicago in the mid-1920's. And not just any blues singer off the farm, but the most famous female blues singer of her day, Ma Rainey, and her band. But that is not the half of it. In that small physical space and musical universe of the recording studio and with her motley group of band members that seemingly represented every possible black musician type that Wilson could image, Ma Rainey, the Mother of The Blues and the whites in charge of production (and who will reap the disproportionate share of the profits) has raised every timely issue for blacks in the 1920's, the 1980's when he wrote the play and, notwithstanding the Obama presidential victory, now.
Wilson's conceptual framework is impeccable. Placing the scene in 1920's Chicago permits him to work with the migration of blacks out of the south in the post-World War I period in order to show the contrasts (and similarities) between the `country boys' (Toledo) and the `assimilated' city boys (Levee). Moreover, he is able to succinctly draw in the questions of white racism (powerfully so in the story of Levee's mother's rape by white men) , black self- help (Levee's father's response to his wife's rape), black hatred of whites, black self-hatred, black illusions (that of Ma in her `queenly' relationships with the profiting whites), black pride, the influence of the black church (good and bad), black folk wisdom ( as portrayed by Cutler, the senior band member) and, in the end, the rage behind black on black violence (Levee) resulting from a world that was not made by the characters in this play but took no notice of their long suppressed rage that turned in on itself. Like I said above Wilson provides a very profound answer to the question posed in my first paragraph. So if anyone asks you what the blues are you now know what to say- read and see Mr. Wilson's play.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom- The Blues Of Gertrude “Ma” Rainey
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Ma Rainey, Yazoo Records, 1990
One of the interesting facts about the development of the blues is that in the early days the recorded music and the bulk of the live performances were done by women, at least they were the most popular exponents of the genre. That time, the early 1920's to the 1930's, was the classic age of women blues performers. Of course, when one thinks about that period the name that comes up is the legendary Bessie Smith. Beyond that, maybe some know Ethel Waters. And beyond that-a blank.
Except maybe I have to take that back a little in the case of Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, at least as to her name if not her music that has gotten more recent publicity through the work of playwright August Wilson’s Century Cycle play “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”. Notwithstanding that possibility, in the CD compilation under review we have what amounts to the best of Ma Rainey during her short but productive recording career in the 1920’s. Upon hearing her on this CD women’s blues aficionados are going to want to know how she stacks up against the heavy competition of Bessie Smith. In many ways there are comparable since they worked much the same milieu but, in the end Bessie’s wider range and more heartfelt ‘feel’ for a song wins out. A case in point is the classic “Oh Papa Blues” done by both. There is absolutely nothing wrong with Ma’s version as entertainment but Bessie’s version comes out as if she had just been shot in the heart by some two-timin’ man. That difference is reflected throughout.
As is highlighted in Wilson’s play Ma however was no fool , unlike Bessie, when it came to business and that included making sure she got her just desserts (and credit) for songs that she wrote (somewhat unusual for a singer in the days of Tin Pan Alley). Moreover, some of the best songs here have some legendary blues sidemen on them. For example, Fletcher Henderson on piano on “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”. Coleman Hawkins on “Blues Oh Blues”. And both Georgia Tom Dorsey (who later went on to a successful gospel career) and Tampa Red on “Sleep Talking Blues”. Wow.