In “Ma Rainey,” Channeling the Blues of August Wilson

December 17, 2020

NEW YORK — Like many of those involved in the making of "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," it's not easy for Viola Davis to summarize what playwright August Wilson has meant to her except to answer, "Everything." 

Davis' first stage role was in Wilson's "Joe Turner's Come and Gone." She made her Broadway debut in his "Seven Guitars" and won a Tony for "King Hedley II." After playing Rose on Broadway in Wilson's "Fences," she reprised the role in Denzel Washington's 2016 film, winning her an Oscar. Most of all, as a drama student, a new light turned on for Davis when she first encountered Wilson — a playwright who stood among the other greats. Arthur Miller. Eugene O'Neill. Shakespeare.

"You're always trying to fit yourself in these roles, trying to make somebody else see you in these roles, transforming into — in your brain — some white woman," Davis says. "With August, when he came along, I didn't have to do that. Those roles are so much a part of my life. It's not fitting a square peg into a round hole. It's something that absolutely speaks to me, that I don't have to fight to embody. It still takes huge work and craft but I don't feel like I have to change the canvas of who I am. He is our playwright. He belongs to us."

George C. Wolfe's "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," which begins streaming Friday on Netflix, is the second movie adaptation of Wilson's plays in an ambitious project spearheaded by Denzel Washington. Following "Fences" and "Ma Rainey," he intends to continue adapting Wilson's famed American Century Cycle, a 10-play series spanning each decade of the 20th century. (The '30s-set "The Piano Lesson" is on deck.)

"These films will reach much wider audiences. A lot more people will know the name August Wilson and what his work is about," says Constanza Romero, Wilson's widow and executor of his estate. "They speak, unfortunately, to the plight of African Americans today."

"Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" is unique in the Century Cycle. Set in Chicago 1927, it's the only one that takes place outside Pittsburgh. All of Wilson's plays hum with the sorrowful beauty of the blues but "Ma Rainey" is soaked through. On a sweaty, summer day, a band has gathered at a white-owned recording studio to cut a new record with Ma Rainey (Davis), the pioneering "Mother of the Blues," and an unapologetically liberated woman from the South. Rainey was openly bisexual and proudly defiant despite the Jim Crow world around her.

"Me, in my life, I have a tendency to be more timid, more shy, probably have more anxiety," says Davis. "She's all the things that I'm not. She's not someone who feels like she needs to hustle for her work. She knows that she's worthy. She knows exactly why she's worthy. She's unapologetic about her sexuality. So when I put it on, I felt my hips swishing more. I even felt like I walked better in heels as Ma Rainey than I do as Viola."

Despite the title, the central, pivotal character of the play is Levee (Chadwick Boseman, in his final performance ), an ambitious trumpeter with a more updated take on Rainey's music and big dreams of breaking out on his own. As played by Boseman, he's a painfully tragic figure, haunted by the traumas of slavery while grasping for an out-of-reach future. In that way, he represents the struggles of 100 years ago just as he does those of today.

"One of the only things I ever said was: It is Levee's story. I think the finished product shows that," says Romero. "I believe it's something August would have said."

A number of Wilson's plays were on the table but Washington turned to "Ma Rainey" for its relatively condensed nature (it's largely set in a handful of interiors) and for the appeal of casting of Davis and Boseman. Washington approached his "The Iceman Cometh" director, Broadway veteran George C. Wolfe, about directing, and longtime Wilson interpreter Ruben Santiago-Hudson to pen the script. Preserving the poetry and rhythm of Wilson's dialogue was paramount. 

"Langston Hughes wrote a book called 'The Ways of White Folks.' August Wilson wrote ten plays about the ways of Black folks," says Santiago-Hudson. "It was more our ways in our specific and authentic behavior in response to the wound that American had given us that makes his work so beautiful and brilliant. It's always a celebration. I don't mean a celebration like a fiddle-and-stopping-on-the-floor celebration. I mean: Look what I went through, and here I am to tell a story."

But as much as "Ma Rainey" was guided by reverence for Wilson, who died in 2005, Wolfe didn't want a sense of awe to overwhelm the storytelling. To dig into the language and to the characters, he made a two-week rehearsal period a requirement.

"I wanted to, for lack of a better word, erase August Wilson and only have his characters remain. So it's Levee talking. It's Cutler and Slow Drag and Ma Rainey talking," says Wolfe. "When working with actors, I ask a lot of questions. Not because I'm really looking for answers but through the process of talking and challenging preconceived notions, I'm instigating a questioning process that will lead to discoveries."

What followed are two of the most acclaimed performances of the year. Both Davis and Boseman are widely expected to win Oscar nominations. For Davis, Ma isn't a character she wants to let go of, or stop admiring. 

"My favorite line of hers is: 'Ma listens to her heart. Ma listens to the voice inside of her. That's the only thing that counts for Ma,'" says Davis. "I mean, that takes most people a lifetime to do."

The film is dedicated to Boseman, who died in August at the age of 43 from colon cancer. No one on the film, which shot last year in Pittsburgh, knew of Boseman's health woes. That's only furthered the esteem they share for a performance Davis calls "transcendent."

"He's not playing around in the character of Levee. He's giving it his absolute 150%," says Romero. "I think there's something about August that brings out the 'A' game in everybody."

Romero likes to call the actors, directors, writers and filmmakers who return again and again to her husband's work "Wilsonian Warriors." She thought Boseman would remain among them. In 2013, he wrote movingly about meeting Wilson and being forever changed by his plays — of helping him "find my song," Boseman wrote, quoting "Joe Turner's Come and Gone." 

For the so-called Wilsonian Warriors still with us — an ever-multiplying army — "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" doesn't mark any kind of ending but a continuation in a lifelong journey. Santiago-Hudson, friends with Wilson when he was alive, has acted in or directed every one of his plays. He's not done yet. "I want to maintain my relationship with this work, with my friend August," he says, "until I die." 


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