Throughout August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”, a consistent theme is the question of how should a black man “handle” a white man? How can the black culture gain any respect from their white counterparts? This theme starts to develop with the introduction of Ma Rainey late in Act I. She is extremely demanding of Irvin and Sturdyvant. They try to force her to play a version of her song “Black Bottom” that she does not want to. They brush off the fact they “forgot” to get her Coca-Cola, which is her only request every time she is in the recording studio. They are constantly trying to rush her to get the song in one take so they don’t have to waste any money. Would any of these restrictions have been put on a white singer? Or are these white men’s racist point of views effecting the level of respect they have for Ma Rainey who is about to bring them a lot of money by recording with them. Ma Rainey initially comes off as arrogant, narcissistic, and snobbish but it is only because she knows what she is worth. And Ma Rainey knows what approach and attitude she has to have in order to maintain control in her interactions with Sturdyvant and Irvin. If she is agreeable and vulnerable then she knows these men will take advantage of her. The other main character who shows what happens if they do not take Ma Rainey’s approach is Levee and his interaction with Sturdyvant at the end of the play. Levee believes he can “handle” the white man by being nice to his face but finding a way to get revenge at a later date. Levee sucks up and shows his vulnerability to Sturdyvant when they are interacting over Levee’s musical composition. Levee believes Sturdyvant wants to sign him to record some of Levee’s own original songs. Only to have Sturdyvant basically steal the songs at the end, only offering $5 as compensation. Levee does not take his chances to demand no and take his songs back from Sturdyvant like Ma Rainey would. Since Levee shows his vulnerability and weakness, Sturdyvant is able to find an opening to steal what he wants from Levee and kick him around like useless trash. If Levee had been more demanding, like Ma Rainey, he could have “handled” the white man like he advertised he could.
Thematic Narrative In Drama