Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom to be Penn Reading Project 2021
On behalf of the President, Provost, and Council of Undergraduate Deans, we are pleased to announce that the 31st Penn Reading Project will be August Wilson’s play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Penn’s incoming Class of 2025 will have access to the text and supporting materials and will participate in small group discussions with other Penn students, faculty, and staff about the book and its ties to the ongoing Provost’s Academic Theme of Civic Engagement.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
August Wilson’s 1982 play is a fictional narrative built around a legendary real-life performer: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, one of the earliest artists to popularize the Blues. Set in Chicago in 1927, the story finds Ma and her band at a recording session where the stakes are high—in an era when records were still a relatively new technology, the results here could bring wider fame to these musicians. But the situation is fraught with personal and professional tensions—particularly between Ma and her gifted but temperamental trumpeter, Levee—that threaten to bring the proceedings to a crashing halt.
Wilson’s play has been produced nationally (including on Broadway in 1984 and 2003) and internationally. It received the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best American Play of 1985 and was nominated for Tony and Drama Desk Awards. A highly-acclaimed film version for Netflix was released in 2020; produced by Denzel Washington and starring Viola Davis, it also features Chadwick Boseman in his final film appearance. Reviewing the movie,New York Times critic A. O. Scott wrote that “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a powerful and pungent reminder of the necessity of art, of its sometimes terrible costs and of the preciousness of the people, living and dead, with whom we share it.”
Ma Rainey will offer our incoming Penn students an opportunity to explore the nature of art, as well as themes of race, community, and families, both blood relations and the families we create for ourselves. By turns exuberant and harrowing, Wilson’s poetic and theatrical story is anchored in history, yet powerfully resonant today. As always with Penn Reading Project texts, the work will also open doors to programming on related topics that intersect and support the academic theme: in this case, Civic Engagement.
One such focus is the larger world of August Wilson’s canon. Ma Rainey is an installment of his “Century Cycle” of ten plays, an omnibus that today is universally recognized as a pinnacle of 20th century American theater. Wilson, who died in 2005, twice received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, both times for works in the cycle: Fences (1987) and The Piano Lesson (1990). The plays, each set in a separate decade, feature different characters—but taken together, they are a deep exploration of the connections between generations of Black families and the neighborhoods and communities (particularly in Wilson’s native city of Pittsburgh) that they build and sometimes uneasily inhabit.
Through Ma Rainey, we will also look more broadly at blues and jazz not only from a musical perspective but also as a metaphor for American identity and character, representing some of the best aspects of America and Americans. As Duke Ellington said, “Jazz is a good barometer of freedom... In its beginnings, the United States of America spawned certain ideals of freedom and independence through which, eventually, jazz was evolved, and the music is so free that many people say it is the only unhampered, unhindered expression of complete freedom yet produced in this country.”
Provost’s Academic Theme: Civic Engagement
The Provost’s Academic Theme of Civic Engagement was initiated in 2020. It recognized the University’s on-going commitment to interaction with our local community and the world at large, as well as the immediate and urgent needs created by the Covid pandemic. At the time, Penn students participated virtually in an online reading project that included short works by James Baldwin, Benjamin Franklin, Martin Luther King, and Toni Morrison. They also took part in programs where they engaged with the Philadelphia community during the academic year, including work with local schools and healthcare organizations.
This year, Penn continues the theme with similar programming, confirming that Civic Engagement is a pillar of the University’s identity.
Education for democratic citizenship is perhaps the most significant purpose of American universities. Education is key to developing, maintaining and sustaining a culture of democracy, which is essential for democratic institutions, laws, and elections. In a democratic society, higher education must educate not only able, but also ethical, empathetic, engaged, effective citizens.
As President Amy Gutmann described it in her announcement, the theme of Civic Engagement “will include programs, workshops, student-led dialogues, and opportunities to engage with the communities outside our campus, from our immediate West Philadelphia neighborhood, to our surrounding city as it recovers from the pandemic, to the wider circle of our nation and our world, and will also draw on Penn’s historic tradition of civic engagement. We were founded by Benjamin Franklin with a vision of a non-sectarian school to educate the leaders of a growing city, with a focus on practical impact on contemporary life.”
The civic and democratic purposes of universities have never been more important—and they have been in Penn’s DNA since its founding. As Benjamin Franklin wrote in 1749, when envisioning the institution that would become the University of Pennsylvania, developing in students “an Inclination join’d with an Ability to serve Mankind, one’s Country, Friends and Family; which Ability… should indeed be the great Aim and End of all Learning.”
How Do I Access the Play?
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom by August Wilson is available online through the Penn Libraries (PennKey login required).
The opportunity to be a PRP Group Facilitator is now live! Sign up to be a Group Facilitator here! The deadline is August 17 at 11:59pm. If you have immediate questions, please contact:
Director, New Student Orientation & Academic Initiatives
University of Pennsylvania