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Penn Reading Project 2021-2022: Ma Rainey's Black Bottom: Overview

The Penn Reading Project and the Penn Libraries

Since 1990, the Penn Reading Project (PRP) has played a key role in New Student Orientation, welcoming first-year students to campus by reading and discussing a specially selected text. This year, the text is August Wilson's landmark 1982 play, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. This fictional narrative is built around a legendary real-life performer, Gertrude "Ma" Raineyone of the earliest artists to popularize the Blues. PRP in turn lays the foundation for the Provost's Academic Theme, which this year remains as Civic Engagement. One of Wilson's ten-play "Pittsburg Cycle," Ma Rainey explores themes of community, migration, race, and relationshipsfamilial and otherwise. This guide provides contextual information about the play, its author, and related topics.

The PennKey required icon identifies Penn Libraries electronic resources - databases, e-books, e-journal articles, and more - that require PennKey authentication to access. For more information on PennKey and its use by the Penn Libraries, please consult our online guide, Using Electronic Resources : Access to Electronic Resources (On and Off Campus / EZproxy).  Find out how to connect with a librarian here.

This guide was developed by Mayelin Perez (Humanities Librarian) and David Fox (Penn Reading Project Director), and includes some material curated by Chelsea Rizzolo (Music Library Intern).

The Text: Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Cover Art Access HERE

PennKey required Wilson, August. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (1984). Access e-versionwith option to downloadthrough Alexander Street Press.

*A note on the text: August Wilson’s writing is often cited for its poetry, grandeur, and power. In Ma Rainey, that takes a form where the playwright sometimes strategically uses language meant to shock and startle us. The events of the play include moments that are brutal, surprising, deliberately provocative, and upsetting. In this use of language and narrative, Wilson is of course making dramatic points that speak to emotions and history that resonate today. We also understand that readers and audiences can feel uncomfortable. Choose for yourselves how to approach this—we hope you’ll bring your own feelings and responses to your small group discussions. 

About the Play

The Pittsburgh Cycle Plays

"Just prior to his death in 2005, August Wilson, arguably the most important American playwright of the last quarter-century, completed an ambitious cycle of ten plays, each set in a different decade of the twentieth century. Known as the Twentieth-Century Cycle or the Pittsburgh Cycle, the plays, which portrayed the struggles of African-Americans, won two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama, a Tony Award for Best Play, and seven New York Drama Critics Circle Awards." --Alan Nadel, August Wilson: Completing the Twentieth-Century Cycle (2010).


 PennKey required All ten plays are available electronically through the Penn Libraries catalog with the use of your PennKey:

1900sGem of the Ocean (2003)

1910s Joe Turner's Come and Gone (1986)

1920s Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (1984)

1930sThe Piano Lesson (1987)

1940sSeven Guitars (1995)

1950s Fences (1985)

1960sTwo Trains Running (1990)

1970s Jitney (1982)

1980sKing Hedley II (1999)

1990sRadio Golf (2005)

Geographies & Migration

Actress Ebony Jo-Ann as "Ma Rainey" in Marion McClinton's 2003 production of the play

About August Wilson

Photograph of August Wilson wearing a har

August Wilson (1945-2005), Playwright 

About Ma Rainey

Photograph portrait of Ma Rainey from the Donaldson Collection

Ma Rainey (1886-1939), Vaudeville, Blues, and Jazz artist


Background & Context:

Blues & Jazz

Civic Engagement at Penn

Opportunities for Civic Engagement abound throughout Penn's Schools, College Houses, and Resource Centers. The following a good place to start:

Get Involved: Jazz at Penn

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