Ma Rainey was a real person. One of our earliest professional blues singers, she performed and recorded throughout the 1920s and 1930s, and her popularity and folksy style earned her the title Mother of the Blues. Among her more noteworthy compositions are Bo-Weevil Blues, Black Bottom, and See See Rider Blues, a recording with Louis Armstrong that was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2004.
Raineys fictionalized doppelganger is at the center of Ma Raineys Black Bottom, one among August Wilsons ten-play Pittsburgh Cycle chronicling the experiences of twentieth century African Americans. The play, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1982, takes place in Chicago -- the only installment in the series thats not set in Pittsburgh. Thats because Ma Rainey, now largely forgotten, often recorded in the Windy City. Wilsons two-act drama otherwise follows his formula of shoehorning issues of race, art, religion, and the exploitation of Black people in the last century.