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August Wilson was born on April 27, 1945 in Pittsburgh's Hill District, a predominantly African-American neighborhood that was the center of the black community in that city for several decades. In 1960, Wilson dropped out of high school, after being falsely accused of plagiarism. He took a series of menial jobs, but continued his education at the public library, delving into the "Negro Section" and authors such as:
- Ralph Ellison
- Langston Hughes
- James Baldwin
Within five years, Wilson was making a serious attempt at becoming a writer, starting as a poet, but moving into the realm of playwright.
August Wilson's Theatre Workshop
In 1965, August Wilson helped form Pittsburgh's Centre Avenue Poets Theatre Workshop, and in 1968 he helped cofound the Black Horizon Theatre Company in Pittsburgh . In 1976, Wilson wrote The Homecoming, a play based upon blues legend Blind Lemon Jefferson, and a forerunner to Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. It was the latter play, when accepted for production at the O'Neill Workshop in Waterford, Connecticut in 1982 that ended Wilson's life as "an unknown playwright".
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is set in 1927 at a Chicago recording studio, a place where "race records" are made. Race records were produced by white company owners using black artists, in order to sell records primarily for black consumption. At the start of the play, two white men are waiting for Ma Rainey and her band. Sturdyvant, the record owner, is interested solely in making money. Irvin, Ma Rainey's manager, is more sympathetic to the musicians, trying to help Ma's career and act as a go-between for the artist and the label.
August Wilson's Band
The band arrives first. No one is quite sure where Ma is, but she is acting like the star she is, in control of the situation, she will show up whenever she pleases. There are four musicians in the band:
- Toledo, the piano player
- Slow Drag the bass player
- Cutler, who plays guitar and trombone
- Levee, the trumpet player.
Cutler is the unacknowledged leader of the group, although Toledo is the only one who can read.
The band is a microcosm of black society. Levee is younger and flashier than the rest; he itches to be the leader of his own band, and pushes to record his arrangement of the song "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom." He feels that the old arrangement is too old fashioned, jug band music that no one wants to listen to anymore. Levee is the prototypical young black man who chafes at the discrimination white society throws in his face. He wants to make his mark, and his new pair of shoes is symbolic of that.