Seminar Prep # 8—Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom Due Friday, May 23 .

Seminar Prep # 8—Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Due Friday, May 23rd.
Read August Wilson’s play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Please attend carefully to the
following reading notes to get the most out of your reading.
Most of the characters in the play speak African American Vernacular English (AAVE
for short). Take time to acclimatize to this English if it’s not easy for you read at first.
What risks does Wilson take using AAVE particularly in terms of the white audiences
who will see this play? What all does using this form of English allow Wilson to
accomplish in terms of storytelling, camaraderie, emotional impact,
music/rhythm/vividness of language etc.?
Wilson’s plays have been criticized because they don’t exactly fit the “well-made play”
formula in which each of three acts clearly focuses on a central character and builds the
plot and stakes until the climax and the careful working out of the final outcome. Walter
Kerr, well-known New York theatre critic, responded by pointing out that Wilson’s plays
aren’t about a central character and his/her story; his plays are about communities of
people and their shared stories. How does this play out in Ma Rainey, both in terms of
the structure and forward movement, and in terms of characters and their storytelling?
One way to read this play is as a debate about or a sampler of how to live as a Black
person in the face of personal and institutional racism. For instance, how might their
history and heritage help African Americans make their way through racist America?
Community, family, religion, education, talent, perseverance, art/music, business
savvy—which of these promise “progress,” solace, hope and to whom? Along similar
lines, read the play with Wednesday’s readings about racism and race privilege in mind,
as well.
And finally, work on reading as a set-designer. Think about the requirements and the
significance of the setting Wilson describes on page xiv. How would you translate the
necessary playing spaces, entrances, exits, levels, into a “visual, 3-dimensional, world”
for this play? Which kind of theater/stage would you choose for the play and why?
We’ve named line, shape, pattern, texture, scale, levels, color, symbol,
symmetry/asymmetry and more as elements that designers work with when they envision
and create worlds for plays. How do any of these speak to your images from reading and
“seeing” the play?
Part I A. Identify and introduce one connection you think is particularly vivid,
important, or intriguing between Ma Rainey and our readings by Wise, Yamato, or
McIntosh. Be precise. Pinpoint the connection for us in no more than two sentences. Be
sure to quote from McIntosh, Yamato or Wise you introduce this connection (and cite the
page #).
Part I B. Select a quotation from Ma Rainey that illustrates this connection. Your
quotation might be a small chunk of dialogue, a piece of a monologue, of a song...
 Set up this quotation briefly by telling us who’s talking to whom in what
 Quote verbatim and note the page number in parentheses.
Part IC. Explain the ways you see that the quote from the play illustrates the connection
you identified and introduced. Try to explain the specific relevance and contents of the
quote itself not of the surrounding text. Take no more than two or three sentences to do
Part II Pick one of the African American characters in the play. Consider how this
character deals with the racism that permeates the society. Perhaps the character
advocates a particular kind of response or path to follow. Maybe the character has simply
developed a modus operandi (method of operation) that you can discern. It might help to
think about this in terms of the choices the character makes or advocates to hold one’s
self (mind, body, soul) or one’s people together in the face of daily exposure to personal
and institutional racism.
IIA—Name the character you’ve chosen and briefly (in a sentence or two) describe your
perception of the character’s distinctive response to racism.
 Select two quotations that illustrate your ideas about the character’s
 Set up each quotation briefly by noting who’s talking to whom and in what
 Quote verbatim and cite the page #.
 After each quotation, explain in 2-3 sentences how/why that quotation illuminates
the character’s response.
Part III—Take on the role of set designer now. Describe the “world of this play” as you
perceive it and imagine it from your first reading. Now pick one of the elements of design
that you would use and explain, in two or three sentences, why or how you would use it
to create and convey the world of this play to your audience. OR experiment with
drawing to show how you would use this element.
For example, with Galileo, I see a world poised to move forward in its scientific
understanding and I feel the energy and excitement this generates. I also see a world
walled in by the church’s authority. I want to play with trajectories and walls, then, as
symbols. Of course, the play is literally about planets and their trajectories. But Galileo
sets out on a glorious intellectual trajectory of discovery and takes others along with him.
Their arc is destined from the play’s outset to collide with a wall of authority, but one
with slowly growing cracks, and light spilling through these cracks like rays of truth.
(Hmmm, not sure how Brechtian this design scheme is so far—sounds a bit “heroic”...)