In 1927, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstong began their careers. Armstrong's start was in Chicago. The setting for August Wilson's play, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, also happened to be in 1927, and in the city of Chicago. During this time the commercial and economic value of African-American art, such as jazz and of Blues, was exploited by white culture. The play exemplifies exploitation with the characters Sturdyvant and Irvin. Wilson also used the value of Blues music for the African-American community of the time to build a foundation for the black characters connection and passion towards one another. The array of black characters, all with differing perspectives and philosophies on life as an African-American in the 20s, and life as an African-American artist in the 20s, reflects the cultural confusion of the time. This confusion is best exposed through the extreme opposite perspectives of Levee and Toledo. Wilson uses the characters varying perspectives on the value of Blues music, in correlation to the exploitive influence of white culture, to exhibit the confusion of how an African-American should pursue success during a time of great paradox.
The undeniable quality of Blues music, and eventually jazz music, produced by African-Americans during a time of social inequality in America, led to the compromise of white culture to accept the artistic innovations made by a race that they viewed as inferior. In Ma Rainey's Black Bottom,' the head music producer, Sturdyvant, represents the compromise in a minimalist and impersonal fashion. His lack of personal interactions with the black musicians, that consume the majority of the cast, exposes a synthetic attraction fueled by the allure of financial gain. Sturdyvant's focuses consist of spending as little money as possible, and making as much money as possible. Wilson uses this character to represent the true nature of white peoples' stimulation of African-American music at the time. Sturdyvant's representation is grand, but it can only exist with a bridge between one extreme and the other.
[...] Ma's value to the producers is used to best compensate for their exploitation, in preservation of this entity. For characters that are less benefited by their influence on that value, the producers are both threatening and representative of opportunity. Toledo recognizes the threat of their influence, and yearns to transcend it. The uneven exchange between whites and blacks of the time, represented in the relationship between producers and band, is a defining element in Toledo's philosophy on how a black man should live. [...]
[...] They got the blues in church.”(Wilson 2.68 ) Throughout the play Levee underestimates the value of blues for the African-American community, partly shown through his urge to change the music and use Sturdyvant to leave the band behind. Cutlers dependence on his beliefs is exposed when Levee's disrespect for the blues is reflected in his disrespect for God, worthless that's my God! That's my God! You wanna blaspheme my God!”(Wilson 2.82 ) The lack of investment in the blues, or God, exhibited by Levee is also a product of distrusting the white man. [...]
[...] I take that emptiness and try to fill it up with something.”(Wilson 2.67 ) Ma exposes the blues for being a means of profound community for African Americans during this time. The elements of the blues best exhibited by Ma Rainey are its grand cultural significance, and the value of perpetuating its influence. Her insights are trustworthy, considering her extraordinary reputation. Ma demonstrates this wisdom through her sass towards Irvin and Sturdyvant, along with her loyalty to the band, Dussie May and Sylvester. [...]
[...] This perception is lost when Ma' Rainey reveals that, “Irvin right here with the rest of them. He don't care nothing about me either. He's been my manager for six years, always talking about sticking together, and the only time he had me in his house was to sing for some friends.”(Wilson 2.65 ) This opens up the truth of Irvin's character, as he greases the wheels for the talent to make the producers money. Irvin even exposes the same sense of white superiority in the third white character of the play, the policeman. [...]
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