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" Rainey—one 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 relationships—familial and otherwise. This guide provides contextual information about the play, its author, and related topics.
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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).
Wilson, August. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (1984). Access e-version—with option to download—through 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.
"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).
All ten plays are available electronically through the Penn Libraries catalog with the use of your PennKey:
1900s - Gem of the Ocean (2003)
1910s - Joe Turner's Come and Gone (1986)
1920s - Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (1984)
1930s - The Piano Lesson (1987)
1940s - Seven Guitars (1995)
1950s - Fences (1985)
1960s - Two Trains Running (1990)
1970s - Jitney (1982)
1980s - King Hedley II (1999)
1990s - Radio Golf (2005)
August Wilson (1945-2005), Playwright
Ma Rainey (1886-1939), Vaudeville, Blues, and Jazz artist
Background & Context:
Opportunities for Civic Engagement abound throughout Penn's Schools, College Houses, and Resource Centers. The following a good place to start: