Television/Theater Review: “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” — Listening to the Lessons of the Blues
By Robert Israel
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a stellar artistic accomplishment, a blazingly powerful dramatic experience.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, screenplay by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, based on August Wilson’s play. Directed by George C. Wolfe. Produced by Denzel Washington. Streaming, beginning on Dec. 18, on Netflix. Currently at the Kendall Square Cinema, Cambridge, MA.
The film version of August Wilson’s stage play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is lavish and theatrically vibrant, propelled by bravura performances that deliver sharp kicks in the gut. A work of fiction, the script draws on true-to-life details about the life and career of the legendary blues shouter Ma Rainey (1896-1939), a talented, egotistical diva who, as dramatized here, actually recorded a “race” record in Chicago in 1927.
To his credit, screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson stayed loyal to Wilson’s script. The plot revolves around Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) and her troubled relationships with her road-weary band members who, unbeknownst to her, are being prodded by young upstart trumpet player Levee (Chadwick Boseman) to join him on new musical ventures. The musicians, albeit enticed by Levee’s vision of greener pastures, choose to stay with Ma. After all, they get paid, in per diem cash, after each show. It’s the life they’ve always known (it sure beats poverty). They cling to a stick-with-the- devil-you-know attitude, fearful that, by surrendering to Levee’s pipe dream of what tomorrow might bring, they could well be left destitute. The film uses the freedom of the camera to graphically capture the chaotic tenor of the times: a nation seething with violence, teetering on the verge of the Depression, suppurating with the scourge of racism — troubles that still fester among us in the 21st century of these United States.
Consider the backstory: Wilson workshopped Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center in Waterford, CT, for a production that arrived, by way of a tryout at Yale Rep, at the Cort Theatre on Broadway in 1982. He crafted the play around two themes: music and pugilism, subjects he knew a lot about. (Ma Rainey was a singer and a street smart fighter: unlike other Black musicians during her time she succeeded in her struggle to gain economic stability.) In the winter of 1978, Wilson told a group of barflies and ink-stained wretches in St. Paul, MN (myself among them), that he was haunted by unnamed characters who were chattering in his mind — he and they were obsessed with Ma Rainey. Most of us –- we gathered at a watering hole near Penumbra Theatre, an African-American troupe — had never heard of her. Wilson knew there was a story to tell: he continued to play the vinyl records of Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith that he had bought in pawnshops in his hometown of Pittsburgh. He listened hard to the messages he found in those female vocalized blues.
The result was a blues spirit that informs his epic accomplishment, plays that chronicled 10 decades of the African-American experience in the US in the 20th century. Wilson articulated his characters’ personal and painful histories in plainspoken yet poetically infused language, speeches that, on occasion, sing. Two of his plays went on to win Pulitzer Prizes for drama. He did not write his scripts in chronological order: he began with Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and ended with “How I Learned What I Learned,” a memoir of his craft and his rough-and-tumble days in Pittsburgh, completed before he succumbed to cancer in 2005 at age 60.
The Netflix production of Ma Rainey does just about everything right. Davis embodies the blues diva completely, spiritually and physically (she gained weight for the role and wore a fat suit as well). She told Deadline that she was inspired to take the part after having seen the late actress Barbara Meek, a longtime resident performer at Trinity Repertory Company, perform it on stage in Providence when she was a student at Rhode Island College.
“In Ma Rainey, everybody’s fighting for their value,” Davis told the New York Times, “and the thing that holds us back is being Black. I wanted to show that. No — ‘show that’ is not a good term for an actor. I wanted that to be a part of Ma Rainey. I wanted people to see what lay in the heart of her being. Which is: I know my worth.”
Boseman’s Levee clashes in several scenes with Rainey in a futile attempt to steal her limelight. This was the talented actor’s final performance: he died of colorectal cancer at the age of 42 while the film was in postproduction earlier this year. Like Davis, he commands his role; the trumpeter is an artist who is struggling to know his worth (his ambition is a mirror image of Ma’s) with authority, rage, and unbridled lust.
Kudos go to producer Denzel Washington — who starred in and directed Wilson’s “Fences” (a film that earned Davis an Academy Award), and who, like director George C. Wolfe, also insisted on adhering to Wilson’s script.
It remains astonishing, however, to see Ma Rainey given the opulent Hollywood treatment. The budget for this production was estimated to be between $20 and $30 million. Wilson’s script, which he envisaged taking place on a minimal set (a recording studio and a rehearsal room), is expanded with gusto: the visuals include street scenes, cabarets, and a large supporting cast that includes scantily clad hoochie-koochie dancers. There’s also a winning score by Branford Marsalis (who wrote the music for the Broadway production of Fences). Dramatist Wilson, who eschewed numerous offers from Hollywood until late in life — when he agreed to write the screenplay for Fences — would have been agog. (The film version of Fences had a budget of $24 million and reaped a whooping $64.4 million at the box office).
Still, the budget is beside the point. This film is a stellar artistic accomplishment, a blazingly powerful dramatic experience. See it at home or in the movie house. And here’s hoping that its success inspires more attempts to film Wilson’s canon.
Robert Israel, an Arts Fuse contributor since 2013, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.