August Wilson and 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom'

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Playwright August Wilson died on Sunday of liver cancer. Wilson was a Tony award-winning playwright, and he won two Pulitzer prizes and a record seven New York Drama Critics Circle Awards. One of his most famous works is Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, a play about a recording session with 1920s blues singer Ma Rainey.


August Wilson died Sunday in a hospital in Seattle. He had announced he had liver cancer earlier this year. Mr. Wilson was a Tony Award-winning playwright. He also won two Pulitzer Prizes and a record seven New York Drama Critics' Circle Awards. His work documented the daily experience of African-American life throughout the 20th century. One of his most famous works is "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," a play about a recording session with 1920s blues singer Ma Rainey. Here, the band mocks horn player Levee, played by Charles S. Dutton, for spending $11 on a fancy new pair of shoes.

(Soundbite from "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom")

Unidentified Man #1: If I had them shoes Levee got, I could buy me a whole suit of clothes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHARLES S. DUTTON: (As Levee) What difference it make what kind of shoes I got? Ain't nothing wrong with having nice shoes. I ain't said nothing about your shoes. Why you want to talk about me and my Florsheims?

Unidentified Man #2: Any man who takes a whole week's pay and puts them on some shoes--you understand what I mean?--once you walk around on the ground with is a fool. And I don't mind telling you...

Mr. DUTTON: (As Levee) What difference it make to you, Cutler?

Unidentified Man #3: The man ain't said nothing about your shoes! There ain't nothing wrong with having nice shoes. Look at Toledo.

(Soundbite of snickering)

Mr. DUTTON: (As Levee) What about Toledo?

Unidentified Man #3: I just said, ain't nothing wrong with having nice shoes.

Unidentified Man #4: Hey, nigger, got them clodhoppers on Brogands(ph). He ain't nothing but a sharecropper.

Mr. DUTTON: (As Levee) You make all the fun you want. It don't mean nothing. I'm satisfied with them. That's what counts.

NEARY: Ma Rainey herself was known as something of a diva, demanding bottles of Coca-Cola before she could possibly start the session. However, through her, August Wilson gets at what is so important about the blues.

(Soundbite from "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom")

Ms. THERESA MERRITT: (As Ma Rainey) It sure done got quiet in here. I never could stand the silence. I always got to have some music going around in my head somewhere. Keeps things balanced. Music will do that. Fills things up. The more music you got in the world, the fuller it is.

Mr. DUTTON: (As Levee) I can agree with that. I got to have my music, too.

Ms. MERRITT: (As Ma Rainey) White folks don't understand about the blues. They hear it come out, but they don't know how it got there. They don't understand that's life's way of talking. You don't sing to feel better. You sing 'cause that's a way of understanding life.

Mr. DUTTON: (As Levee) That's right.

Ms. MERRITT: (As Ma Rainey) You get that understanding and you done got a grip on life to where you can hold your head up and go on and see what else life got to offer. The blues help you to get out of the bed in the morning. You get up knowing you ain't alone. There's something else out there in the world. Something's been added by that song. This be an empty world without the blues. I take that emptiness and try and fill it up with something.

Mr. DUTTON: (As Levee) You fill it up with something that folks can't be without, Ma. That's why they call you the Mother of the Blues. You fill up that emptiness in a way like ain't nobody ever thought of doing before, now they can't be without it.

Ms. MERRITT: (As Ma Rainey) I ain't started the blues way of singing. The blues always been here.

Mr. DUTTON: (As Levee) Sometimes you find that way of singing in the church. They got blues in the church.

Ms. MERRITT: (As Ma Rainey) They say I started it, but I didn't. I just helped it out a little bit, that's all. But if they want to call me the Mother of the Blues, that's all right with me. It don't hurt none.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: That was actress Theresa Merritt as Ma Rainey, from the original Broadway cast recording of August Wilson's "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom." The playwright died of liver cancer yesterday in Seattle.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. MA RAINEY: (Singing) Oh, yeah, ...(unintelligible) I want to see the dance you call the black bottom, I want to learn that dance. Want to see the...


NEARY: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. RAINEY: (Singing) I want to learn that dance. Now ...(unintelligible) big black bottom ...(unintelligible). Early last morning 'bout the break of day, Grandpa told my grandma, I heard him say, `Get up and show your old man your black bottom, I want to learn that dance.' Now I'm going to show y'all my black bottom. They stay to see that dance. Wait until you see me do my big black bottom, it'll put you in a trance.

Unidentified Man: Oh, do it, Ma. Do it, honey. Look out now, Ma. You're getting kind of rusty. Be yourself now. Careful now. Not too strong. Not too strong, Ma.

Ms. RAINEY: (Singing) I done shown you my black bottom. You ought to learn that dance.

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