‘The blues help you get out of bed in the morning. You get up knowing you ain’t alone. There’s something else in the world. Something’s been added by that song. This be an empty world without the blues.’ – Ma Rainey
George C. Wolfe is one of the best theatre directors. The man is responsible for one of the greatest and most legendary productions in history – Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” (1993). In 1992 he made his auspicious Broadway debut writing and directing “Jelly’s Last Jam,” about the career of Jelly Roll Morton who is considered one of the people who introduced jazz to America in the early 20th century. In 2016, Wolfe also created “Shuffle Along,” a musical about the making of the 1921 theatrical production of the same name, which legitimized the African-American musical and proved that audiences would pay to see Black talent on Broadway. Wolfe had directed movies in the past to respectable results, but in bringing August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” to the screen we find the most perfect convergence of director and material. Wilson’s plays are innately theatrical. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is part of his Pittsburgh Cycle – consisting of ten plays, each in a different decade of the 20th century, which chronicle the Black experience in the United States. It is also the only one that doesn’t take place in Pittsburgh – and it’s a blazing narrative about what racism does to its sufferers. The music that is found in Wilson’s language becomes an equal counterpart to the artistry of the blues music it is celebrating.
The tricky part in bringing such an innately theatrical work to the screen is honoring its roots while also understanding that you’re working in a completely different realm. Wolfe finds a balance – a world that feels heightened – and in which Wilson’s language soars and feels cinematic and fluid. Eventually in the story, we witness Levee – an eager young Black trumpeter – start to realize that his dreams of success are collapsing. He thought the white producer would buy and produce his songs, but instead he’s forced to sell them for pennies. As he’s facing that defeat, he’s also experiencing his loss of self-worth. Wolfe has the character violently attempt to push open this door in the basement that has remained locked — and finally, he is able to do it. For a moment we experience the satisfaction of being free. Immediately the camera shows us that the door leads to a brick wall and as Levee looks up, the camera follows his gaze and we see that he is in a walled-in room and the sky above is out of his reach. It’s a sobering, yet beautiful metaphor – a powerful representation of not just Levee’s immediate situation – but also of being Black in America.
The story fictionalizes a Paramount-label recording session that Ma Rainey – one of the earliest blues singers to record – did in the 1920s. Known as “The “Mother of the Blues,” she bridged earlier vaudeville and southern blues with a low and gravelly voice, influencing a generation of blues singers. Wolfe dramatically starts the proceedings with clues to Rainey’s artistic journey, showing her performing blues in a tent – and then on a vaudeville stage. Her songs bragged about sexual escapades – something that men had been doing – but not women. By the time she arrives in Chicago, she’s at her zenith – and she’s become a mercurial talent – with a limo at her disposal, her young nephew in town and her lesbian lover. Prior to her arrival to the studio, the four band members who will accompany her show up – they joke around, smoke a joint, tell stories and argue. There are gorgeous monologues here – like arias or solos at a concert. Slowly, the scars – literal and figurative – of racism start to surface. Levee has ambitions to record his own music and form his own jazz band. He’s done arrangements for today’s session that move away from the “Jugband music”– the more traditional style – that Rainey favors. The band members see this as a challenge. Ma and Levee will come to blows – and they will both have to deal with the white music industry’s exploitation of their artistry and race.
Wolfe makes it all move very swiftly, like a locomotive moving towards its impending tragic end. He’s made one adjustment to Wilson’s work that proves essential. He’s changed the season during which the recording takes place to summertime – and the temperature and look of the film adds to the embers burning inside the characters. Viola Davis is a force of nature as Ma – the sweat streaking her make-up. She has enough self-esteem to not care what people think of the way she looks – growling at the camera with her gold grill on her teeth. But the movie – rightly so – belongs to Chadwick Boseman as Levee – sadly in his last performance. His calibration of this young man’s downfall is both tragic and combustible. When you see him in this, and you must, you cannot help but think of the other great performances from this artist that we were robbed of.
Levee: ‘’Now death. Death got some style. Death will kick your a** and make you wish you never been born. That’s how bad death is. But you can rule over life. Life ain’t nothing.’’
Available to stream on Netflix
Screenplay by Ruben Santiago-Hudson
Based on the play by August Wilson
Directed by George C. Wolfe
Starring Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo and Michael Potts
Director George C. Wolfe on His Journey to “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”
Wolfe first saw “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” on Broadway in 1984, in a Tony-nominated production starring Theresa Merritt and Charles S. Dutton that Wolfe remembers now as “incredible.” Still, the play, which tells the story of one very eventful recording session for the legendary singer—and plumbs ideas of race relations, feminism, sexuality, power, loyalty, and the clash between art and commerce—isn’t one he’s spent the years since pining to direct. “I remember when I went to see ‘Angels in America’ when it was in Los Angeles, and I went, ‘Oh, okay. That’s probably going to win the Pulitzer,’” Wolfe says. “I didn’t go, ‘I want to direct that.’ When you go to see work, you appreciate it for what it is. I’m not sitting there going, ‘One day it’s going to be mine.’ When I go to see something, I think of how it’s being done for me, not how I would do it.” That changed, as so many things do, thanks to a conversation with Denzel Washington. “I was talking to Denzel about how he wanted to do a play, and wanted to do it with me directing,” Wolfe recalls. “So, we were having these series of conversations about what the play might be. And then, in the middle of that, Denzel mentioned that he wanted me to direct ‘Ma Rainey,’ because he was in charge of making sure all of the August Wilson plays in the 10-play [Pittsburgh] cycle were being done. He had already done ‘Fences’ and he wanted me to do ‘Ma Rainey.’ He brought it up in a conversation and I thought, Oh, okay. That’s interesting.” …“It felt like this really idiosyncratic, odd, wonderful convergence of characters in locations and situations that I thought was really fascinating,” Wolfe says. “I thought it was really interesting that it was about a woman who fully embodied her power and stood in defiance of anyone who tried to stop her.” (townandcountrymag.com)
Director George C. Wolfe on Bringing “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” from Page to Screen
Wolfe brought on Ruben Santiago-Hudson to write the screenplay. Santiago-Hudson had a long history with Wolfe, beginning with appearing in “Jelly’s Last Jam.” It was Wolfe who, during his 11-year tenure as artistic director of The Public Theater, commissioned Santiago-Hudson to write the autobiographical “Lackawanna Blues” about his former nanny. And it was Wolfe who directed the 2005 HBO film adaptation. Santiago-Hudson says Wolfe was the “perfect” director. “I knew he would make a remarkable film. I also knew he would have great notes and guidance on the script,” Santiago-Hudson says. “Of his many attributes, his vision and artistic sensibilities, his love of African American life, his leadership and clarity, as well as his preparation and collaborative skills, are impeccable.” The upcoming version of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” largely unfolds on a single day in 1927 Chicago where band members wait in a recording studio for the star of the show. As they pass the time, the men reminisce, preen and share big dreams, particularly trumpet player Levee (Boseman) whose arrogance and swagger belie a painful past. And even when Ma Rainey arrives, things don’t go smoothly. Davis, who put on 20 pounds for the role and dons makeup that seems to be melting off her face, calls Ma Rainey “a behemoth of a character.” She is unapologetic in challenging and demanding respect from her manager and producer, two white men profiting off her talent. Tensions run high throughout the day, and to accentuate this, Wolfe moved the setting of the play from winter to summer as, he notes, “heat became a character in the film.”
Wolfe dug into the script; he found it fascinating that it is Wilson’s only play set not in Pittsburgh but Chicago, at a time when thousands of Black people were making their way north. “I think he’s doing this treatise about the adverse dynamics of the Great Migration. And the consequences of what happens when people leave the rural South for the urban North,” Wolfe says. “In the South, were they able to create structures on their own because of the rigidity of segregation? They’re able to create their own internal economic and spiritual and cultural structures in order to survive. They’re coming to New York, where they can do the same thing. But at the same time, if they want to achieve another level of business opportunity, they’re going to have to come into contact with white power structures.” And when it came to the character of Ma Rainey, a Black woman not dependent upon anybody else, he wondered: “What happens if someone shows up with a sense of power that is separate from the power structure she comes into contact with?” In adapting a play, there is often the common refrain that one needs to “open it up” for the big screen. “That phrase is tattooed on my forehead,” Wolfe jokes. And while he certainly has made a film that looks and feels spectacularly colorful and lively, he also chose to play up the literal restrictions of the rehearsal room to reinforce the metaphorical ones. “In some respects, that band room is about confinement,” he notes. “So therefore, those walls become crucial. The band goes down those steps and tell their stories about glorious and not-so-glorious things that have happened. So I actually had to figure out what the strength is of that confinement.” Wolfe’s experience behind the camera also includes “The Immortal Lives of Henrietta Lacks” for HBO and the films “Nights in Rodanthe” and “You’re Not You,” but “Ma Rainey’s” aura is the work of an auteur from top to bottom. “This really feels like George coming into his own as a film director,” raves Kushner, who also praises the actors. “Viola Davis, I’ve never seen a performance like that — the layers of grief and rage. There is no better director for actresses than George; he really brings out everybody’s innards.” (variety.com)
Director George C. Wolfe on Chadwick Boseman
“Ma Rainey” demonstrates another of Wolfe’s hallmarks: He put together a flawless ensemble, largely composed of actors he had worked with in the theater, such as Michael Potts, Colman Domingo and Glynn Turman, who play the other band members. For Levee, Wolfe needed someone who could play charismatic and intelligent but emotionally immature. “He has the makings of greatness but is haunted by his past,” he notes. In casting Boseman, he knew he had the right actor. “And in addition to bringing all of that, he was a brilliantly skilled actor, thoughtful and completely invested in the material,” says Wolfe. The movie was shot on a 30-day schedule in summer 2019, and Wolfe says the shoot could be tough, but it was also joyous. He was still editing the film when Boseman died on Aug. 28 from colon cancer at the age of 43. Wolfe was stunned; he had no idea Boseman was ill and says he and the actor had even exchanged other scripts for projects they could work on together in the future. Boseman has earned raves for his volcanic turn as Levee, with many critics saying his last performance might be his best. And while Wolfe is devastated that the actor died so young, he says he is grateful for the time they spent together, their conversations and their collaboration. “I feel blessed by the performance, blessed by getting to know him and exhilarated by the work, by this astonishing performance,” he states. “So yes, there’s sadness, but there’s all these other qualities that I find, ultimately, empowering. Working with him felt empowering, and the work that’s on the screen is empowering.” (variety.com)
Viola Davis on Remembering Chadwick Boseman
In remembrance of her late costar, Davis gave an explanation of just what made Boseman special, not just in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” but in every piece of work he graced with his presence: “The mark of an artist is transcendence. When you can see those performances where someone really channels all that makes us messy and putrid and traumatized and beautiful as human beings, and they bravely are able to channel that,” Davis shares. “There are very few artists out there. There’s a lot of entertainers masquerading as artists; there are [only] a few artists who are absolute artists. And Chadwick was one of them. That needs to be acknowledged because I don’t think that acting is rocket science. But I do believe that it’s an art form, and I do believe that it does have the ability to shift and change people and our hearts. There’s a value to that. So this is a huge loss to people in general, but especially to our community.” (ew.com)
About Ma Rainey
Gertrude “Ma Rainey” Pridgett was born in Columbus, Georgia, sometime around 1886 (though Census records state that she was born in Alabama in 1882). Although the details of her childhood are unclear, Rainey was one of at least four children born to Alabama natives Thomas and Ella Pridgett. At age 14, Rainey began performing in local tent shows, eventually catching the eye of musician William “Pa” Rainey, who was more than 10 years her senior. The couple wed when Rainey was 18. “Ma” and “Pa” hit the road working as traveling performers. They founded the Alabama Fun Makers company, and later joined the Rabbit Foot touring minstrel shows billed as “Black Face Song and Dance Comedians, Jubilee Singers [and] Cake Walkers.” By 1914, the Raineys were known as “The Assassinators of the Blues.” Her marriage, however, didn’t last very long. Rainey separated from her husband in 1916 and set off on a solo career. The origins of blues music can be traced back to the post-Civil War era. Birthed from the hardships of the formerly enslaved Black Americans in the deep South, the blues evolved from spirituals and work songs and became a way to air grievances while maintaining the tradition of oral storytelling through music. “It is hard to define this music,” Wilson wrote in his play. “Suffice it to say that it is music that breathes and touches. That connects. That is in itself a way of being separate and distinct from any other.” If the blues were an exquisitely designed structure, Rainey was one of its architects. She was introduced to the blues in the early 1900s, years before it was defined as a music genre. Known by nicknames like “Ma Can Can” and “Black Nightingale,” Rainey captivated audiences, belting out lyrics that echoed the agony and angst of Black life in the Jim Crow era. Rainey’s performance style — a blend of gritty, sometimes intense moaning, call-and-response delivery and emotional turbulence — became so popular that she performed for integrated audiences decades before segregation ended.
In the early 1920s, Rainey migrated to Chicago where the blues scene electrified the city. Music producer J. Mayo Williams moved to the Windy City around the same time. Williams, one of the first Black NFL players, ended his football career and found success as a producer and music executive for Paramount Records. After signing Rainey to the label, she laid down her first blues recording in 1923, following the lead of Mamie Smith, noted as the first Black female artist to be recorded. Paramount marketed Rainey as the “Mother of the Blues,’ a fitting title for her grandiose bravado. Weighing nearly 300 pounds, Rainey played up her stage persona with a flamboyant style of feather boas, flowy sequin gowns, flashy jewelry, gold teeth, fur-trimmed jackets, and her signature headgear. Rainey was sharp-witted, often categorized as a shrewd, businesswoman who traveled with an entourage that included her choreographer and dancers. She worked with some of the most influential acts of the era such as T-Bone Walker and Tampa Red, and forged a friendship with Bessie Smith, whom she helped mentor. In 1924, Rainey recorded several collaborations with Louis Armstrong, including “Jelly Bean Blues” and “Countin’ the Blues.’’ That year, Rainey toured the South and Midwest with the Theater Owners Booking Association, backed by pianist Thomas Dorsey and the Wildcats Jazz Band. During her five years with Paramount, Rainey recorded more than 100 songs. Among them, 1928’s “Prove It on Me Blues,” a sultry offering drizzled with not-so-hidden references to Rainey’s queerness. It is arguably one of the earliest song depictions of same-sex relationships in the blues (one of the lyrics is rumored to reference a 1925 lesbian orgy that resulted in Rainey’s arrest), and undercuts the brilliance of Rainey’s ability to subtly affirm her sexuality. She cleverly hid lyrics about lesbianism in earlier recordings like “Shave Em Dry” and “Bo-Weevil Blues,” but also addressed issues like domestic violence in “Black Eye Blues.”
Rainey spent much of her professional life backed by male musicians, yet she never downplayed her complicated feelings for men, namely on songs like “Trust No Man” and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” As the roaring ‘20s came to a close, Rainey’s career began to slow down. The music industry became one of the many casualties of the Great Depression. Subsequently, Paramount went bankrupt and ceased all recordings in 1932, ending Rainey’s time with the label. The brand of blues that made Rainey famous had faded in popularity as swing jazz grew into a dominant genre. Rainey continued touring for a few years, but retired in 1935. With her music career over, Rainey settled back in Columbus where she ran a string of theaters — the Lyric, the Airdrome, and the Liberty Theatre. She died of a heart attack in 1939, at age 53. Over four decades after her death, Rainey began to receive widespread recognition. She earned a posthumous induction into the Blues Foundation’s Blues Hall of Fame, and was later inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the GRAMMYs Hall of Fame. Her trailblazing blues technique inspired generations of artists including Dinah Washington, Big Mama Thornton, Melissa Etheridge, and Cyndi Lauper, who dedicated her Memphis Blues album to Rainey. Outside of music, Rainey influenced the writings of poet Langston Hughes, and was the inspiration for the character Shug Avery in Alice Walker’s Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, “The Color Purple.” In 2004, Rainey was added into the Library of Congress National Recording Register. Three years later, Rainey’s former home in Columbus was turned into a museum. The Columbus native’s legacy continues to be celebrated in her hometown, which hosted the first-annual Ma Rainey International Blues Festival in 2016. (etonline.com)
About Playwright August Wilson
Born Frederick August Kittel, Jr in Pittsburgh in 1945, as the fourth of seven children, August Wilson grew up in the impoverished Bedford Avenue area of the city. The family moved from there when his mother re-married and Wilson attended school; he dropped out at 16 and focussed on working in menial jobs while fostering his burgeoning love of the written word with trips to the Carnegie Library. Reading the works of Langston Hughes and Ralph Ellison embedded a desire within the teenage Wilson to become a writer, though his mother wanted him to pursue a career in law. Disagreements over this decision led to Wilson leaving the family home and he intended to spend three years in the army, but he left after a year and returned to Pittsburgh to work in various jobs. After his father’s death in 1965, Frederick Kittel Jr became August Wilson, a decision made to honour his mother. The late sixties saw Wilson become heavily influenced by Malcolm X and the Blues and he converted to Islam to ensure the survival of his marriage to Brenda Burton (1969). A year earlier Wilson set up the Black Horizon Theater with Rob Penny where his first plays, “Recycling” and “Jitney,” were performed. Wilson’s first marriage was divorced in 1972 and in 1976 “Sizwe Banzi is Dead” – his first professional play – was performed at the Pittsburgh Public Theater. Two years later the budding playwright moved to St Paul, Minnesota where worked writing educational scripts for Science Museum of Minnesota. The Playwrights’ Center in Minnesota awarded him a fellowship in 1980 and he left his job a year later; he continued writing plays while working as a chef for the Little Brothers of the Poor. In Minnesota Wilson built a strong relationship with the Penumbra Theatre Company which produced many of his plays in the eighties and in 1987 the city named May 25th August Wilson day after his Pulitzer Prize award in the same year. Wilson left St Paul for Seattle in 1990, following the divorce of his second marriage to Judy Oliver, and while there the Seattle Repertory Theatre performed a number of his plays. In 1995 Wilson received one his many honorary degrees from the University of Pittsburgh where he became a Doctor of Humanities and was a member of the Board of Trustees. He married again in 1994 to Constanza Romero and eleven years on in 2005 was diagnosed with liver cancer. In October, he passed away. (august-wilson-theatre.com)
About Director George C. Wolfe
Playwright and artistic director George C. Wolfe was born on September 23, 1954 in Frankfort, Kentucky. Wolfe attended the Rosenwald Laboratory School, where he discovered an interest in staging and directing. As a teenager, Wolfe attended a summer theater workshop at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio and began directing plays. Wolfe graduated from Pomona College in 1976 with a B.A. in theater. He wrote and directed his first play, Up for Grabs, in 1975. The following year, he premiered Block Party. Wolfe completed a six-month postgraduate artist residency at Pomona College before meeting C. Bernard Jackson, who funded the first production of Wolfe’s Tribal Rites at the Inner City Cultural Center in Los Angeles. Wolfe staged several plays in Los Angeles before moving to New York in 1979, where he graduated with his M.F.A. in 1983 from New York University School of the Arts. He premiered “Paradise!” in 1985 and “The Colored Museum” in 1986, which garnered the attention of New York Shakespeare Festival founder Joseph Papp. Following the premiere of “Spunk” (1989), Papp named Wolfe a resident director in 1990. Wolfe won his first Obie award for Spunk’s New York production that same year. In 1992, Wolfe made his Broadway debut with “Jelly’s Last Jam” at the Virginia Theatre, and achieved widespread recognition when he directed the Broadway premiere of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” in 1993. He was named producer of the New York Shakespeare Festival that year and went on to produce ten seasons. Wolfe also directed the 1997 world premiere of “Amistad” at the Lyric Opera in Chicago, Illinois. He staged “Shuffle Along, or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921” and “All That Followed” at the Music Box Theatre in New York City in 2016. (berkeley.edu) He was nominated for Tony Awards in 2018 and 2019, first for directing Eugene O’Neill’s tragic “The Iceman Cometh” and then for the raucous Nathan Lane-headlined “Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus”…(variety.com) Most recently he directed “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” which was released in 2020.