“You don’t sing to feel better. You sing because that’s the way of understanding life.”
Viola Davis as Ma Rainey via screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson, adapted from playwright August Wilson, captured by director George C. Wolfe in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
George C. Wolfe deftly directs a brilliant ensemble in a bracing adaptation of August Wilson’s play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, part of his 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle, each examining African-American life in a different 20th century decade.
The original stage play opened on Broadway in 1984 and received 3 Tony nominations, including Best Play and won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best American Play. Set in the 1920s, the work chronicles the real life titular southern blues artist and her volatile experience on a particular day in a Pittsburgh recording studio.
Wilson’s gem has now been adapted into a stunning new film, now streaming on Netflix.
Ma (Viola Davis), known as the “Mother of the Blues,” argues with the white powers-that-be for her right to record her songs her way. She also goes toe-to-toe with an arrogant coronet player, Levee (Chadwick Boseman), who is trying to push his ambitious arrangements forward, and her bandmates (Colman Domingo, Glynn Turner, Michael Potts), some of whom are in agreement with Levee. Ma has brought along her young female lover, Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige), and her stuttering nephew (Dusan Brown).
Oscar-winner Davis (Fences) and Boseman deliver powerhouse performances (as does the ensemble), in this deliberately choreographed boxing match of wills. Sadly, Boseman died this past August. He left us with an astonishing portrayal of a damaged young black man bent on succeeding in a society where everything seems stacked against his doing so. Wolfe captures his world vividly and with great authenticity.
George C. Wolfe began his career in the theatre as a playwright in the 1980s (The Colored Museum, Spunk). He directed the Broadway musical Jelly’s Last Jam, starring Gregory Hines, in 1991. Two years later, he would make history directing Tony Kushner’s groundbreaking Angels in America, (both Millennium Approaches in 1993 and Perestroika, a year later) winning the Tony Award for Best Director for the former.
From 1993 to 2004, Wolfe was artistic director of The Public Theater. During his tenure, he directed the Broadway musicals Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk (also, creator and lyricist), Michael John LaChiusa’s The Wild Party (for which he co-wrote the book) and Kushner’s Caroline or Change as well as the plays Twilight: Los Angeles, Topdog/Underdog and Take Me Out.
In 2006, he directed the acclaimed musical revival of Mother Courage and Her Children, adapted by Kushner and starring Meryl Streep, and the Broadway bow of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart in 2011 as well as a Broadway revival of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh starring Denzel Washington in 2018.
His film and TV directorial credits include Lackawanna Blues (Emmy nomination, DGA Award) written by Ruben Santiago Hudson, Nights in Rodanthe starring Richard Gere and Diane Lane, and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (DGA, WGA nominations) starring Oprah Winfrey.
Awards Daily spoke with Wolfe the day Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom premiered on Netflix.
Awards Daily: You open with Ma’s tent show, a great way into her world and how she beguiles her audience. Can you speak to the decision to begin the film that way?
George C. Wolfe: Well, because, at one point she has a line where she says to Irvin, ‘I’ll take my ass back down South, because I don’t like it up here, no-how.’ I was just fascinated by her sense of power. And you do the research and you find out that she was this showbiz entrepreneur in the South at a time, 1927, where you think lynching and Jim Crowe, but she was able to build her own version of a southern empire—an entertainment empire. I wanted to give her a grounding, so that when she shows up in Chicago and she’s taking on a white policeman and she’s taking on her manager and she’s taking on the band and Levee, she’s doing so not (with) some empty defiance, but she is a person of power. And she has success. She’s in command of herself. And also her audiences were slavishly devoted to her. And her sound, the blues, is her life story. I wanted to create all these dynamics and textures about who she was, what we think the South is, what the South is actually and…what happens with the great migration—what happens when you give up that connection to the land, to community, to people that you are a part of. The circumstances are horrible, but people were able to build communities and support and nurture each other. So I wanted to celebrate that and expose that and have an audience be inside of that rhythm so that they understood who she was when she shows up.
AD: Ma Rainey is one of those stories that was almost lost to history, yet it’s a story that very much resonates today. Why is everything old always new again?
GCW: Because we don’t know these stories and it’s a shame because in stories and history is our power for surviving the moment that we’re in. That’s why it’s important to know these stories. They’re amazing and compelling, but they’re healing. August Wilson wrote it and it was done on Broadway in 1984, but just the actual fact of Ma Rainey and the dynamics of the creation of Levee, those stories are compelling because he’s a powerful writer, but they’re also about survival. They’re about loss. They’re about things we need to be in touch with. That’s why it’s so important.
AD: How did the project initially come to you? And did you bring Ruben on board?
GCW: I think Ruben was on board before me. And Denzel and I were talking and he asked me to direct it. He wanted somebody who has done film as well as theatre and I said, okay. That’s how I got involved.
AD: I love the way you kept the camera fluid, especially in the confined spaces, it reminded me a lot of Robert Altman’s work…
GCW: I love Robert Altman! Lord, Jesus! He, at one time, asked me to write something for him.
AD: Really? It’s such a shame that didn’t happen!
GCW: It really is…He was obsessed with Amos and Andy and comedy and he wanted me to explore something with that. But I was running The Public at the time and there was only so much I could do.
AD: Did you have any particular influences when it came to the filmic approach to Ma?
GCW: Well, it’s very interesting because the band room had more to do with Raging Bull than not. Seriously. I was working with the production designer, Mark Ricker. He created an oblong space and I said, no, it needs to be a square, with these 4 columns, because these are a series of rounds in a boxing match between Levee and his fellow band members. And instead of punches, they’re throwing words. They’re trying to dominate each other with the language. So Levee throws out a bunch of punches, linguistically, and then Cutler clobbers him and then Levee retreats to his corner. I wanted it to move and feel (in that manner) while celebrating in this glorious storytelling of these people trying to pull a one-upmanship on each other. And to really dig into that dynamic of using the language as a way to combat each other, but then coming together anytime the music plays. Because that’s what they obey. Levee doesn’t obey anyone because of the nature of who he is, but when the music starts, they become a band again. So I wanted to go from this very combative rhythm, using language to beat the crap out of each other.
AD: I want to applaud you for dealing with Ma’s bisexuality honestly, openly and almost matter-of-factly.
GCW: Well, she did, too! [Laughs] One of the songs that’s on the list of songs that she’s recording, which was one of her hit songs is called ‘Prove It on Me.’ And the lyric is—it’s my favorite lyric ever written by a lyricist: ‘I went out last night with a bunch of friends. Must have been women, ‘cause I don’t like men.’ Okay? That was her song. She wrote it. The next line is, ‘Prove it on Me.’ So she is claiming herself and then slyly says, ‘Well, now you gotta prove that.’
AD: That’s amazing..
GCW: Yeah, and it was a hit song! It wasn’t done in some dark room club…it’s on the album that she records.
AD: So it was accepted back then…?
GCW: It was the blues…Judging and dismissing people is a luxury of easier times.
AD: Can you speak to casting, specifically Viola and Chadwick. Were they yours and Denzel’s first choices?
GCW: Absolutely. And my joke is Viola said, ‘No. No. No. No. Yes.’ [Laughs] I wanted that power and that ferocity and that intelligence. Ma is so ridiculously intelligent. I think she was illiterate, but there’s an intelligence there. And she’s a songwriter and she has a troupe and she employs people and she protects them and she bullies them. So I wanted somebody who could embody, fully and deeply, the power and the intelligence and the unapologetic ‘Here I am’ energy. And Viola was perfect for that. And Chadwick, having all this charisma, but incredibly complicated depth as an actor, I thought he would be perfect for Levee.
AD: I was impressed with how you knew when to just place the camera on him and let him do his thing.
GCW: Yeah, exactly. At one point, I had images that I shot that were going to be intercut into his story…and once I got into editing I was like, no, we ain’t doing that. No. No. No. We don’t need to see shots of a little boy. He is now a little boy telling this story.
AD: I can only imagine how devastating Chadwick’s passing was. You both obviously worked so well together.
GCW: While we were filming we talked about doing a play. Afterwards, when I was editing, he sent me a movie script he wanted me to do and I sent him one. There was all this talk of the future, of what we were going to do next, of what he was going to do next. I mentioned a story I was writing and he said, ‘When you’re finished, you send that to me.’ So it was about the future. And I had an ADR (recording) session with him in June and I totally finished the film in July, so it was stunning—the loss was stunning. But I choose to live inside of the wonder of his work and what got captured on film.
AD: I wonder if Ma was a gay icon back then, because she probably would be today.
GCW: …So, Ma was working the South and the North and there was this woman named Gladys Bentley who was a singer in Harlem around the exact same time and she performed at a club, I think it was called The Clam House and she would take popular songs and do dirty double-entendres with them. So there was almost this requirement that if you were a blues singer you were bisexual. Bessie Smith was also bisexual and a protégé of Ma’s. Some say they were lovers. And, interesting enough, it’s Bessie Smith who started to usurp Ma’s record sales. I think there were all kinds of representations of people and people were drawn, as they are to this day, to talent. And who sounds like you.
AD: You’re a groundbreaking artist with your work at The Public Theater and as director and playwright but especially for both black-and-gay-themed work these last 30 years. Did you consciously set out to change things –was it ever a mandate?
GCW: I had a very specific mandate when I was running The Public Theater which was to invite as many people and as many different stories into the room. That was the only time I was operating from a mandate. The rest of the time—I have this rule called ‘hit by a bus.’ If I’m working on a project–a film, a play or something I’m writing—and I walk outside and I get hit by a bus, am I going to be pissed off because the last thing that I was working on didn’t matter? And I don’t always succeed in this dynamic, but I always …because it takes so much out of you to make work fly, I always want to connect it to things that I believe are going to matter or that people are going to find empowering. …And, the film of Ma Rainey, while it ends with a tragedy, there’s so much joy and life and light that is reverberating inside of it, that hopefully in the loss, you feel the joy and the loss of the joy, just as much.
AD: Ma balances so many themes; music appropriation, the creative process, the disenfranchisement of black men, honoring the past, much more…all in 90 minutes.
GCW: America, unfortunately, keeps playing musical chairs, going round and round, asking the same questions, and being confronted with the same dilemmas and the same dynamics, so they’re ever present with us. The conversations don’t go away because the issues don’t go away. Because I don’t think we have the courage to really dive into the past because we think the past is awkward and uncomfortable or it’s done. But the past is where you have to confront things, but it’s also where you find power and strength.
AD: Did you run into resistance with show like Angels in America, Normal Heart, Take Me Out?
GCW: Not Angels, because that was like, the second coming has arrived. No. Not at all. I was running the theater so I got to say, here’s what we’re doing next, so that was good. On my first Broadway show, Jelly’s Last Jam, I got resistance from aspects of the Broadway community. When I did my play, Colored Museum, I got an equation of resistance from the black theater community. So, at different times, I’ve experienced opposition…but you just do it. The work’s too hard. You’ve got to focus on what you’re doing and not think about what other people are thinking.
AD: You’re no stranger to awards—Tonys, Emmys. How do you feel about being a part of the film awards conversation right now?
GCW: That sounds great! (laughs) Sure! I’m not gonna kick it out of my bed! That’s great that the conversations are happening. When you go into a room to start a new project you can’t bring in an award. You’ve got to bring the uncertainty and the terror and the joy of starting something new. So it’s great to win stuff and it’s just as great and terrifying and fun to go to work again…I love the journey of making something new and not knowing. And it’s great when the work and the people that you work with get acknowledged and celebrated.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is now streaming on Netflix.