A nation torn apart by racial violence, an industry with a history of exploiting black culture, white executives eager to portray themselves as allies, and black performers at the center of it all fighting with a system that would toast them with one arm and their bags with the other.
The story of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” August Wilson’s acclaimed 1982 play of Black Pride, White Power and the Chicago blues from 1927, is as burning today as it was when it was written. A new feature adaptation, due out on Netflix on December 18, breathes new life into Wilson’s historical story at a contemporary moment when so much and so little has changed.
The second entry in his 10-play American Century Cycle, describing the Black experience in every decade of the 20th century, “Rainey” won three Tonys for its original run on Broadway. The film adaptation is already a contender for next year, thanks to a scorching lead from Viola Davis and a powerful showing of Chadwick Boseman in his final film role before his death from cancer in August.
Davis plays Ma, an indomitable artist based on the real “Mother of the Blues,” whose unprecedented superstar took her from marquee shows in Barnesville, Georgia, to a recording session in Chicago. The white men who oversaw the session, visions of dollar signs dancing in their heads, fear and respect Ma like everyone else in her gravity-bending job, including her friend Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige) and a quartet of seasoned backing musicians: Levee ( Boseman), Cutler (Colman Domingo), Toledo (Glynn Turman), and Slow Drag (Michael Potts). But when Levee’s own career ambitions put him at odds with the group, the fragile infrastructure threatens to implode.
Tony winner George C. Wolfe (“Angels in America”) directed the film from a script adapted by Ruben Santiago-Hudson. In a recent round table discussion conducted via video chat, Wolfe, Davis, Domingo, Turman and Potts discussed partnering with Boseman, Rainey’s mighty legacy, and asserting your worth in a world built on your devaluation. These are edited (and spoiler-free) excerpts from our conversation.
The film is dedicated to Chadwick Boseman, who puts on an unforgettable performance as Levee. What are your memories of working with him? What did he bring to the performance you saw as his collaborators that we as viewers may not know?
GEORGE C. WOLFE I remember one time, when the band was just sitting at rehearsal, he started one of his last monologues. It had all been very casual. And then, at one point, it wasn’t just any ordinary thing – it was a fully invested moment full of energy and intensity and truth. I just remember thinking, “Oh, are we going there?” And he went there. We were all about half the characters and the other half who we were, and then, at that point, half the character took over. And it was kind of glorious.
GLYNN TURMAN I liked the way he always had his cornet handy. He always did something with it, became familiar with it, discovered how a musician and his instrument become one. Every time he picked it up, it was in the right position. Every time he put it down, it was in the right position. Every time he brought it to his mouth it was in the correct position. He became a musician. It was great to see that. We’ve all taken that idea of not being left behind, as actors do. [Laughter]
COLMAN DOMINGO That is the truth.
WOLFE Who, this group? I am confused. [Laughter]
I wonder, if you watch his performance now or if you watch the movie, does it play out differently for all of you in light of his passing? Has the meaning changed in some way for you?
DOMINGO Absolutely. I recently looked at it and I heard Chad’s language in a different way. You see his strength and his humor. It brought tears to my eyes very early on knowing what I know now. And knowing that we were all very healthy people and that we were doing this great job, showed up and struggled with August’s language. This man also had a huge battle. I don’t know how he did it. I sat by myself for at least 15 minutes after watching it and I cried a bit especially when I saw the dedication. I really noticed that he is not with us. I knew he wasn’t, but to see that written it kind of decimated me.
VIOLA DAVIS There was a transcendence about Chad’s accomplishments, but it had to be there. This is a man who rages on God, who has even lost his faith. So [Boseman has] I had to go a little bit to the edge of hope and death and life for that character to work. Of course you look back on it and see that it was there.
I always say that a carpenter or someone else who does work needs certain tools in order to create. We are our tool. We have to use ourselves. There is no way to just tie what you are going through and leave it in your hotel. You must bring that with you and you need permission to do so. And he went there, really.
George and Viola, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is the only piece in August Wilson’s American Century Cycle inspired by a real public figure. What do you think it is about her story that’s ripe for drama?
WOLFE I think one of the reasons August was drawn to her is [that] she lived outside the rules. And when someone lives outside the rules, it becomes very clear what the rules are. I love that she’s going to fight the fight without thinking about the consequences. She’s going to fight because she has to. She reminds me of … my grandmother was like that. If you were a black woman, if you waited for someone to acknowledge your power, it would never happen. So you had to claim your power. She has that quality that everyone has to evolve if you are an artist, period, and if you are an artist of color, magnified: this is the truth and this is my talent, and this is what I am willing to do and this is what I don’t want to do. I think she lived her life so purely that way. And if you put that in 1927, you have drama, because the world doesn’t recognize any of that.
DAVIS One of the things I love about August is that he gives us something that we haven’t had in many stories, especially movies: autonomy. We are always kind of shown in a filter of a white can. It’s like Toni Morrison talks about Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man”. She says, “Invisible to whom?” August defines our private. If you ask any of us participating in this Zoom call if we know someone like Ma Rainey, who can beat you on Thursday and be in church on Sunday, who doesn’t apologize about their worth, we grew up with such people. And I sure think it’s a good start for a story, to have a woman who was known for her autonomy, who didn’t trade for her worth, and the men who were around her.
Viola, tell me about how to get into Ma Rainey’s character. There is literally stepping into the costume, but there is also the way she wears herself and the way she interacts with the world around her. Where did you find inspiration and what did it feel like to be her on set?
DAVIS You just have to look at the circumstances. They said she had makeup that looked like grease paint melting off her face. In the tent [during her performances], she always looked like she was covered in sweat. She always looked wet. She had a mouthful of gold teeth. She was described as unattractive. But because she was such a caregiver, some people were drawn to her.
Like everything else, I always say that if someone did a story about my life and they went to my husband and daughter, maybe talked to my mom, you’d still only get about 40 percent of me. The other part, you have to rely on your observations in life. You have to get to what drives that person. What do they live for? That’s when I had to approach my Aunt Joyce and other black women I know to fill in the blanks. Who was she private? Who was she when she was with her wives? Even if you didn’t necessarily see it, I had to use that for fuel.
Glynn, Colman and Michael, so much of the film’s electricity comes from the interactions between the guys in the band. There is a kind of fun and camaraderie among you, but there is also a current of tension and rivalry. Tell me about how you have worked together to create that dynamic.
TURMAN It starts from a place where you can really enjoy each other’s company. I think one night after rehearsal we had a dinner where we all went out after we just met. Our friendship is built on that foundation. Just like in real life, the pain and discomfort comes from how well you know each other, because the people you know are the only people who can really touch you. So we all put in a lot of effort to get to know each other within the time frame we had. That way we could berate and berate each other [expletive]. And that happened both on screen and off screen. [Laughter]
MICHAEL POTTS It never stopped. You’re on set with a bunch of men who have no minds. They have no sense at all. [Laughter]
DOMINGO I remember Chad came in one day. It was early rehearsal. He would come in with his hat to the side and the trumpet with him. He enters a room quietly, very gracefully. And I don’t know if it’s the Cutler in me too, but I was like, “Oh, so you just think you’re not going to talk to anyone when you come in? You walk in and don’t talk to anyone?” [Laughter] He said, “Ah, no, no!” We were joking that way. But from then on, he made sure to come every morning and say goodbye and show respect to his brothers. Because the feeling was: we cannot be in our own heads. We have to come in and just hand it over to each other. And that’s what we did.
One of the main questions the film asks is how you come to terms with your place in the world – as an artist and entertainer, but also as a black person at the bottom of a rigid racial hierarchy. I wonder if there were elements from the characters’ stories that resonated with you in your own artistic and professional journeys.
DOMINGO I think that’s why this piece resonates so much, especially to black artists. You always try to make sure your voice is heard, by just speaking the truth and saying, “No, my place in the world should be exalted because of what I give. I’m just asking what I deserve, that’s it. ” I think [the characters] ask about it. I really know I’m asking for it. We all ask for it every day. We wake up fighting for it, go to sleep and think about fighting for it. And above all we fight for the next generation, trying to move the button.
DAVIS I find it exhausting. I do. I find it very necessary but exhausting. You fight for your place. You fight to be seen. You fight to be heard. It’s always a fight. And it is a struggle for the simplest things that are given to other people without exchange.
My big thing is when I have to fight for my ability. I can not stand that. That part of me is the part that went to 10 years of drama school, did all that theater, did Off Broadway, Broadway, TV or whatever. And then you go into a room in Hollywood and you see that it has a short shelf life when attached to someone Black. That’s what pisses me off. I don’t like when people question my ability. But I feel like that’s what all of August’s plays are about – fighting for your place in the world. And here’s the other thing: you don’t have to be king or queen. You don’t have to be someone from above. He has brought importance into our lives, even though we have not turned it into a history book.