Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is the story of African American blues singer Ma Rainey and her band recording a new album in Chicago in the 1920s. The play takes place over the course of a single night and uses tensions between the band and the white producers to illustrate the exploitation of black musicians by the record industry. It also focuses on class divisions within the emerging blues community and old and new musicians.
In a Chicago-based recording studio, Ma Rainey's band players, Cutler, Toledo, Slow Drag, and Levee turn up to record a new album of her songs. As they wait for her to arrive they banter, tell stories, joke, philosophise and argue. As the play unfolds it becomes clear that the tension is between the young hot-headed trumpeter Levee, who has dreams of having his own band, and veteran players Cutler and Toledo.
By the time Ma Rainey does turn up in full regalia and entourage in tow, the recording schedule is badly behind, throwing the white producers Sturdyvant and Irvin into more and more irate disarray. Ma's insistence that her stuttering nephew Sylvester should do the voice intro to the title song causes more havoc. As the band waits for various technical problems to be resolved, the conflict between Levee and Cutler reaches boiling point and violence ensues. Finally, when Levee is simultaneously fired from the band by Ma for his insubordination and then rejected by Sturdyvant who had offered to record his songs his anger becomes too much and he stabs Toledo, killing him, thus destroying any possibility of a future for himself.