Putting Performance First in the Dramatic Literature Classroom: Teaching August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

William Boles, Rollins College

It is the first day of the semester as I sit at a big round wooden table in Orlando Hall at Rollins College, a small liberal arts college in Winter Park, Florida. I am in the midst of trying to acquaint myself with my dramatic literature students beyond the smiling headshots that accompany their name on my roster sheet. Among the questions and suggestions I throw out to them (“Where are you from?” “What year are you?” “Candy Crush or Threes?” “When you are out on a date, do you sit across or next to your partner?” “Tell us something about yourself that you have never revealed to anyone else.”), one in particular is always telling and reveals the struggle I will face that semester, and every semester that I teach dramatic literature.1

“What’s your favorite play?” I ask.

If I don’t hear, “I’ve never been to see a play before,” then the response runs the usual musical theatre gambit of The Lion King, Phantom of the Opera, Les Mis, or, more recently, The Book of Mormon.

When I press the students, reminding them that their choice is actually a musical and not a play, then the eyes droop, the faces fall, and uncertainty followed by panic settles in on their visage. To paraphrase Harold Pinter, as a teacher “I never heard such silence.” Eventually, someone ends up muttering a text forced upon them in an English class in high school, invariably an Arthur Miller play, which then is repeated by every other student as theirs favorite play of all time. Yes, The Crucible, I am looking at you.

As you can imagine, reading dramatic literature is not something that most of my students willingly engage in daily, weekly, monthly or yearly. The rest of the first week of the semester, then, is devoted to teaching students how to read a play. To this end, we read in class a short play, sometimes August Strindberg’s “The Stronger,” sometimes Samuel Beckett’s “Catastrophe,” with the expressed purpose of discussing setting, staging, vocal inflections, physical actions of the actor, and the audience engagement with what transpires on the stage.

In addition, I stress how the reading of a play is far different than reading any other form of literature. I inevitably say something along the following lines: “There is something that you all need to know before you embark on reading dramatic literature this semester. I am teaching this class all wrong. Other genres, the novel, the short story, the poem, are essentially one on one reading experiences. You sit in your chair and read Toni Morrison. You sit by the pool and you read Tennyson. It’s a personal, private experience between you and the writer. No one else interferes. However, when it comes to plays, all of that is thrown out the window. You actually shouldn’t read a play. We shouldn’t be reading plays for class. Plays aren’t meant to be read. They are meant to be seen, heard, felt and experienced. A community of theatre practitioners work together (playwright, director, producer, designers and actors) to bring the piece to life every night. A novel is static, it is not going to change. A play is not static. It is going to change. It does change. Every night of a performance is different from the one before, from the one that follows. So, essentially what we are doing every week is merely studying a blueprint of what the play should be, could be, might be, and trying to build its three dimensional form with our words here in class. And each one of us will see the formation rising from that blueprint differently. If we were really to do the material justice, we would be seeing the plays we study every week performed. So, as you read each week’s play, build a picture. Build the set in your mind. Pay attention to stage directions. Think about the way words can be said and the meaning conveyed by different intonations, inflections. Create the performance in your mind and think about how the performance then supports your interpretation of what the play ultimately means.”

As the semester progresses, I constantly make reference to the performative aspects of the text. The real test of how well the students take in this interpretive directive is highlighted when we study August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom in the second half of the semester.

Wilson’s play, part of his ten play cycle of the African-American experience in the 20th century, takes place in a recording studio in Chicago in 1927. As the play opens, we are introduced to two groups of males awaiting the arrival of Ma Rainey. While Sturdyvant and Irvin, her white producer and agent, respectively, await her arrival up in the recording studio, her band members Slow Drag, Cutler, Levee and Toledo are relegated to a smaller room downstairs where they practice and argue about the state of the African American male in the first quarter of the 20th century. Through the conversation of the band members it becomes clear that there is a cultural divide between the older band members and Levee, the youngest and newest member, who has ambitions to write songs and headline his own band, while the older band members are content with the status quo of their existence. After Ma’s hectic arrival (she had been involved in a car accident and a skirmish with a cab driver) the band and Ma begin the on again, off again process of recording her songs, while dealing with various interruptions, including a cord being disconnected, her nephew’s stuttering introduction of one of her songs, Ma’s diva posturing, and Levee’s arguments with Ma and others about his musical vision. Once the recording session is over, Ma, fed up with Levee’s posturing, fires him and then his dream of starting his own band is squelched by Sturdyvant, who rejects Levee’s musical compositions and band idea. In a fit of despair over his destroyed dreams and anger at Toledo for stepping on his new shoes Levee stabs Toledo to death.

The first day of class is focused on discussing the characters, especially Levee and Ma. At the start of the second day I break the students into groups of four and ask them to create a hierarchy of power among the play’s characters. In other words, which characters have the most power? Which characters have the least?

For five to seven minutes they dissect the major characters and create their lists, resulting in groups listing Sturdyvant, Ma’s white producer; Irvin, Ma’s white manager; Levee, Ma’s black, impetuous trumpet player: or Ma, the black diva singer, as the most powerful in the play. Their choice, though, depends upon how they defined the dynamic of power within the frame of the play, which usually is influenced by the discussion we have on the first day of class. Usually, the students gravitate to five different possible power positions in breaking down the character relationships in the play.

Economic power, which leans to Sturdyvant and Irvin, the two white characters, but then has Ma above the remaining African-American characters.

Racial power, which leans toward the two white men again, but once again has Ma above the remaining African-American men.

Social power, which once again leads to the white men and then once again to Ma.

Physical power, which leans toward Levee, because of his murder of Toledo.

Intellectual power, which leans to Toledo, who provides his fellow band members with various philosophies of facing life as an African-American male. In addition, he is the only band member who can read.

All of this information goes up on the board, where we then, as a class, begin to assess all the various power dynamics of the play in order to determine which character has the most powerful position in the play. Almost always, after examining the various group power lists up on the board, the class settles on Sturdyvant as the most powerful, because he is white, has the most money, owns the studio, controls the release of Ma Rainey’s recordings, and makes a significant profit from her recording session.

Once everyone has agreed to this line of reasoning and the students believe the exercise is over, I play devil’s advocate and make the argument that the class is wrong, having failed to realize that Ma Rainey is actually the most powerful figure in the play. After all, I reason, she decides what songs she will record. Sturdyvant plans on forcing her to perform a version of a song that Levee had arranged, but Ma refuses, insisting that she knows what is best for her fans and her artistic abilities, not Sturdyvant. She halts the entire recording proceedings for a Coke, showing off her power as a diva who will not perform until her needs are acknowledged and sated. She forces Sturdyvant to include her nephew as the spoken voice introducing her on one of the tracks, even though he stutters. In addition, due to her insistence and manipulation of the proceedings Sturdyvant has to pay her nephew twenty five dollars for his voice lead-in, which incidentally is the same amount of money that each band member is paid. After the recording session ends, she withholds her signature on the contract releasing the songs to him until all of her payment demands are met. Plus, Ma is not blind to her position in relation to Sturdyvant and Irvin. She knows she is being used and makes the most of her position of power that comes from the commodity of her voice. She tells Cutler during one of the breaks, “All they want is my voice. Well, I done learned that, and they gonna treat me like I want to be treated no matter how much it hurt them” (79).

Students tend to provide a counterargument to Ma having the most power by discussing her treatment outside the physical world of the play. She is a black woman in a white, patriarchal world, and the students use the example of her delay in getting to the recording studio when she was involved in an altercation with a white taxi cab driver. My rejoinder is that we are only looking at the power dynamic within the context of the play itself. What is it, after all, that Wilson wants us to see on stage? If Wilson wanted us to see Ma in the larger society, then he would have shown it to us. Instead, he keeps his and our focus tightly defined and confined to the recording studio and what occurs there over these few hours of action, where Ma is in complete control. In other words, he provides a space where an African-American woman has completely control over the white and black men in her sphere.

While there are always a few naysayers to my argument, I always manage to convince the class that Ma is the most powerful character in the play, thus reversing their arguments for Sturdyvant.

After they all agree with me about Ma, I then say, “But wait a minute. Aren’t we forgetting something?” And I remind them of what we talked about the first week of class. The fact that as we read the play, we are not physically seeing the play. We have to remember that a play is meant to be a performance and not a static experience on the page. I then direct them to reread Wilson’s description of the set, specifically the control booth, where Irvin and Sturdyvant spend the majority of their time. The discover that the “small control booth is at the rear and its access is gained by means of a spiral staircase” (xiii), and it is here when the students realize that they did not consider the performative nature of the piece. They forgot to read the play as a play.

Wilson has placed the sound booth above the action of the play. Sturdyvant and Irvin have to come down the stairs to the studio. While the band and Ma perform, the two white men sit above them, looking down on the performers, recording (trapping) their musical performance. In the theatre height is part of the trappings of power. In addition, the booth upstairs is off-limits to all the African-American characters. It is a privileged white space. While Irvin and Sturdyvant can move freely throughout all the playing spaces of the story, Ma and the band members find their movement restricted and controlled. Ultimately, while the students were initially right about Sturdyvant being the most powerful figure, their argument lacked the acknowledgement of the physical representation of the characters in the theatrical performance of the play.

Through this exercise (and many other similar ones which refocus the students on the performative nature of dramatic literature) I keep the power of the performance itself at the forefront of the literature-minded students’ engagement with the dramatic material, helping them to realize that the only really true way to appreciate the power of drama is to actually see it on the stage.

 Works Cited

Wilson, August. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. New York: Plume, 1985. Print.

  1. This piece was developed through a “Teaching Tips and Trade Secrets” special session at the Comparative Drama Conference in Baltimore, Maryland in April of 2014. []