Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is a 1982 play – one of the ten-play Pittsburgh Cycle by August Wilson – that chronicles the twentieth century African American experience. The play is set in Chicago in the 1920s (the only play in the group not set in Pittsburgh), and deals with issues of race, art, religion and the historic exploitation of black recording artists by white producers.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
Written byAugust Wilson
Date premiered1984
Place premieredEugene O'Neill Theater Center
Waterford, Connecticut
Original languageEnglish
SeriesThe Pittsburgh Cycle
SubjectA blues group waits to get to work in the studio, and tempers flare.
SettingChicago, early 1927

The play's title refers to a song of the same title by Ma Rainey referring to the Black Bottom dance.


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.


  • Ma Rainey, blues singer
  • Cutler, trombonist
  • Dussie Mae, Ma's girlfriend
  • Irvin, Ma's manager
  • Levee, trumpeter
  • Policeman
  • Slow Drag, bassist
  • Mel Sturdyvant, studio owner
  • Sylvester Brown, Ma's nephew
  • Toledo, pianist


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.[1] 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.[2] It was enormously well received.

A Broadway revival opened on February 6, 2003, at the Royale Theatre, featuring Charles S. Dutton as Levee and Whoopi Goldberg as Ma. Directed by Marion McClinton, the show ran for 68 performances.

Subsequent UK revivals have taken place in Liverpool at the Playhouse (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.[3] 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 Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom film for Netflix, which Denzel Washington will produce, alongside Todd Black and Dany Wolf.[4]

Awards and nominations

  • 1985 New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best American Play
  • 1985 Drama Desk Award Outstanding New Play
  • 1985 Tony Award for Best Play


Further reading

  • 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.
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