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. Early in the summer, Penn’s incoming Class of 2025 will have access to the text and supporting materials; immediately before the start of classes, they 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.”  


More information – and opportunities to sign up as a PRP Discussion Facilitator – will be available early in the summer. If you have immediate questions, please contact:

David Fox
Director, New Student Orientation & Academic Initiatives
University of Pennsylvania

Additional information and links coming by early Summer!