Take Your Book Group to Pittsburgh

ma-raineys-black-bottomIt’s my ongoing quest to convince more book groups to take on plays as part of their reading schedule. Plays are a quick read for months when your readers don’t have lots of reading time. Reading part or all of the play aloud at the meeting can be a rewarding and entertaining experience, certainly a happy variation from the “same old” book club night. Because most plays are character-focused and heavy on conflict and important themes, they often spur reward discussion.

I’ve just finished the first work by August Wilson, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. It’s the story of a recording session in the 1920s which goes terribly awry. Exploitative white producers create a variety of different responses in the black musicians whom they are recording. Ma Rainey is the no-nonsense star who has been through it all and knows ultimately, that her voice on a record is a profitable proposition for the company. She exploits this for as much as she can without having any delusions about how much the toadying producers care about her personally. Levee is an angry young talent, trying to advance the music but high on himself and the latest fashions. He feels stifled by Ma Rainey’s more traditional approach and doesn’t want to stay in the background anymore. Toledo is a veteran session man with a philosophical, patient take on life, but he doesn’t have much use for Levee’s pretensions. These folk mix with other interesting characters for a long day that ultimately turns ugly. It’s a powerful work that captures many aspects of the African-American experience. Beyond race, readers at any career stage should see themselves reflected in the play’s disparate musicians.

Wilson would go on to write a play for each decade of the 20th century. Collectively, they’re known as the Pittsburgh Cycle because every play but this one is set in that city. Fences, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, The Piano Lesson, and Jitney are some of the best known, but all of the plays are worth reading. Your group might enjoy reading several in sequence or having different readers take on each play in a single meeting. Either way, you’re in for a treat in the work of one of the great American playwrights. Wilson died too young of liver cancer at age 60 in 2005, but his literary legacy is still extensive, and his plays will continue to be produced. His work remains one of the best ways to explore the scope of the African-American experience.

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About the Author:

Neil Hollands is an Adult Services Librarian at Williamsburg Regional Library in Virginia, where he specializes in readers’ advisory and collection development. He is the author of Read On . . . Fantasy Fiction (2007) and Fellowship in a Ring: a Guide for Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Groups (2009).

2 Comments on "Take Your Book Group to Pittsburgh"

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  1. atodd@phpl.info' Alex says:

    I would argue not just plays, but a wide range of formats would be an interesting way to shake things up. My club did A Raisin in the Sun a few years ago because Chicago used it for it’s One Book program (we do those titles the year after). It went over very well and actually, I don’t know why we haven’t done other plays since.

    But we’ve also read the graphic novel Maus which really opened some eyes on the format. And when we did 8 Men Out, I encouraged folks to also watch the movie and the differences between the two were a central part of our discussion.

  2. atodd@phpl.info' Alex says:

    And on another note, does anyone belong to, lead, or even heard of a play reading club? It’s where the members sit and read the play aloud and discuss it as it’s happening. We’ve had one patron inquire about us starting such a club. Her experience was more of a couples night situation – instead of playing bridge, they read plays. And drank wine. She loved the wine.

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