Reflections on "Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom" with 11th Grade English
Dr. Tom Worden, David Bruce Smith High School English Department Chair

“Just one day . . .” -- An Immersive Experience with August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

We could have heard a pin drop. Zooming into our 11th-grade English class to relate his experience performing the role of Levee in a recent production of August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, our visiting artist Ronald Emile offered a window into the life of his character. Every day of Levee’s life, Mr. Emile explained, he fought a battle on two fronts: one against those who had and continue to mistreat him and his family, and one against himself in his struggle to actualize his dreams as a musician. That day in the studio, Mr. Emile went on to say, when Levee explodes in a fit of rage, the consequences of which were unimaginable until that moment, he loses both battles. The shift in the atmosphere of our classroom  at that moment was palpable. A new understanding began to take shape of what it was like to experience the societal challenges that followed Levee on a daily basis.

The culmination of a journey that alumna Ms. Lonnie Firestone (who attended JDS and graduated in 1997) had taken me along for the last two years, this moment was one of affirmation. Last year, as part of our newly launched DEIJ effort, JDS invited Lonnie to run a club: Theater Artists & Interviews. Students in the club met regularly to talk about the actors they would then interview, composing and refining interview questions and meeting professional actors. Of those performers, the most memorable for me was Jaime Lincoln Smith who played Dun, the school security officer, in the Lincoln Center production of Dominique Morisseau’s play, Pipeline. It was at that moment that I realized how meaningful and powerful Black narratives can be, both through works of art and through actors bringing those works to life.

This fall, Ms. Firestone, now Co-director of Exploring Black Narratives, an organization whose aim is to create opportunities to examine these layers of experience, returned to JDS to teach a workshop on Wilson’s Ma Rainey. Students were ready to take a deeper dive having performed an on-book reading of the play the week before she came. The approach Ms. Firestone and I took was dramaturgical. We started with the cultural and historical background of the play, the tension between the more established blues that Ma Rainey performed and the avant garde jazz with which Levee seeks to make his name. We listened to an actual recording of Ma and of some of the leading jazz artists of the time. In the second class, we explored more deeply the matter of people being paid what they are worth, a theme that Wilson takes up in every one of the plays in his 10-play Century Cycle. Our focus in Ma Rainey was the struggle that all the musicians faced in their efforts to be fairly compensated for the music they performed. With these ideas in mind, we were ready to hear from our visiting artists. To prepare for these visits, we devoted a class to the careful study of the scene each would perform and to the crafting of questions that the students could use to interview the artists. 

The interviews proved a huge success. Lonnie invited two professional actors to share their experiences with Wilson’s play: Mr. Emile, who performed the role of Levee, and Mr. James A. Williams who, in another production of the play, had performed the role of Cutler, the band member who is closest to Ma. Mr. Emile spoke to a number of issues, from the physical demands of the role to the emotional toll it took on him; how he ran five miles a day to build the stamina needed for the role of Levee, and, in a particularly wrenching moment, how he mentally prepared for Levee’s murder of another character, who was played by a close friend of his. His take on how Levee comes to the studio that day feeling like it will be the greatest day of his life helped us see the optimistic side of Levee in a new light. Mr. Williams' talk moved us in a different way. Mr. Williams knew August Wilson as a personal friend and collaborator. His account of how radical Wilson’s plays were in the early days was eye-opening. Most moving was his take on the tragedy that unfolds. “All these characters needed to do,” Mr. Williams said, “was make it through one day. Just one day. And they couldn’t do it.”

The impact of this deep dramaturgical dive into the play was not lost on our students. In the reflections they provided on the unit, a number of them said they gained an appreciation for the music of the 1920s. “With school books,” wrote Noah Grabel (‘23), “we often miss out on pop culture at the time. With this play we got both a look into pop culture of the time and a harsh check on the race relations of the time.” Lyle Barrocas (‘23), noting Mr. Emile’s account of his performance of the role of Levee, wrote: “He talked about having the ability to go to the edge emotionally and having the restraint not to jump off.” Evan Gerstenblith (‘23) wrote “I learned about the emotional toll that playing Levee had on Mr. Emile. The tense relationships that he had with the others such as Ma Rainey and Toledo did affect him even out[side] of the play.” 

Of Mr. Williams, Coby Malkus (‘23) wrote “I thought it was very interesting to see how [he] interpreted the play in his own eyes, especially how he viewed the idea of fear. He discusse[d] with us that in order to play Cutler, he had to take in this story and also bring in the fear of the story so that while acting he is able to show that fear. I think this is significant because it can still connect to our world where there is still racial injustice in which Black people have fear, whether it's about their children, themselves, or anyone else.” “When he said that playing Cutler in this play has made him understand what his ancestors went through,” wrote Naomi Kazden (‘23), “that made the scene feel a lot more real.” Finally, “Hearing about Mr. Williams' opinions and thoughts . . . allowed me to think in a different way; not just as a reader, but as an actor as well,” wrote Zoe Weiss (‘23).

How Levee grapples with internal and external forces and how the band members need to get through “just one day” were ideas that profoundly impacted our class, for it was in them that we deepened our understanding of Wilson’s work. Such are the invaluable lessons of an immersive, experiential approach to teaching August Wilson.