74 pages 2 hours read

August Wilson

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Fiction | Play | Adult | Published in 1984

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Cultural and Social Change

At the beginning of the play, Sturdyvant tells Irvin, “Times are changing. This is a tricky business now. We’ve got to jazz it up…put in something different” (11). In 1927, the real Ma Rainey was on the verge of being dropped from the label as passé. Her music career ended a few years later. Levee’s music represents the sound that newer audiences want to hear. Sturdyvant’s interest leads Levee to believe that he is the next wave of famous musical talent. However, Levee discovers that part of this change in the music business is the outright ousting and exploitation of black musicians that will continue throughout the 20th century. Instead of raising up black singers and songwriters to meet the growing demand for a sound that originated with black musicians, the industry appropriates the style. Sturdyvant takes advantage of Levee by claiming that his songs aren’t what listeners want, despite the fact that earlier in the play, he tells Irvin that it is. While Levee imagines the increasing desire for the music of black artists as progress, Sturdyvant only wants to buy his songs, presumably to be performed by white artists.