Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

We caught Netflix’s new producion of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom a couple of weeks ago, but I wanted to hold my rave ’til Black History Month, when I traditionally try to do a post related to African-American culture every day. This one has lots of special meaning for me and speaks to why I’m even writing to you now in the first place.

I got my theatrical training at the conservatory at the Trinity Rep company in Providence, having first heard about the school from a girl I briefly dated whose mom was a member of that company. Her mom was the actress Barbara Meek, who played Ma Rainey in Trinity’s 1987 production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, not long after its world premiere. That was my introduction to the play. Someone else who caught Meek’s performance in that same production was another young Rhode Island theatre geek…Viola Davis. Like the rest of the planet, I am a huge fan of Davis, embellished in my case with a natural skein of home state pride. Anyhow, this connection adds layers of resonance to the new film, on top of its objective excellence. Levels beyond that are added by the fact that the movie contains the last onscreen performance of Chadwick Boseman of 42, Da 5 Bloods, and the Marvel Universe, where he is known for playing Black Panther. This final, incredible performance, got in just under the wire before his death at age 43 of cancer, is like a gift.

Ma Rainey was August Wilson’s first play; its bifurcated narrative tells twin stories. One is about the titular blues singer, a real-life pathbreaker who is (at the time of the play, the early ’20s) already being eclipsed by acolytes like Bessie Smith, and exploited by the white money men who produce her records. The play takes place at a recording session where she proves to be difficult, demanding, and even extortionate — purposely, it turns out, for she knows when the producers have gotten what they want she can’t milk them for any more. Though her name is in the title, and her image is invariably used in promoting the play, giving the impression that the entire show is about Ma, the bulk of its drama is devoted to the head-buttings of her musicians as they wait for her to step up to the microphone. Three of them, Toledo (Glynn Turman), Cutler, (Colman Domingo), and Slow Drag (Michael Potts) have developed strategies for how to get along in an unjust world, mostly by bending like branches so they don’t break. But Levee (Boseman) has suffered life experiences that won’t allow him to live in peace. He has much talent, much anger, and big dreams. When things don’t go as he planned, he lashes out — at an innocent person. Thus, like all Wilson’s plays, it is a tragedy. There are plenty of laughs, but your takeaway will be tears, not feelgood hilarity.

I am particularly grateful for this production, directed by the Public’s former artistic director George C. Wolfe, because it addresses a potential pifall I mentioned in my previous take on the play. On the page, and in the production at Trinity I saw, I thought the play was marred by the constant, seemingly needless bickering the quartet engages in as they wait for Ma. In the script, it often feels without motivation, and outside of the characters’ interests, and simply like an inactive bad time. But Wolfe has filled those moments with STUFF, he has justified it. Much of it is done in the spirit of the “Dozens”, ebullient, affectionate kidding and teasing. And much of the rest of it illustrates a sitution in which these characters, who are practically imprisoned, cannabalize each other rather than act effectively against their captors. As a star, Ma is able to let off the most steam, through sex (represented by Taylour Paige as her lover Dussie Mae), and other pleasures (Coca Cola), and by performing (a new prologue showing Ma in her tent show element is one of the happy additions to this adaptation). As an upstart newcomer, Levee resorts to stealing his pleasures, through secret side deals and elicit liaisons. But even so the system is rigged against him and he explodes as a consequence.

As good as Davis is as the scenery chewing Ma, ultimately the film’s most memorable moments go to Boseman, who internalizes Wilson’s stage poetry and goes at it like a Jazz Age Lear. Where he found the energy to take it to that level in the last stages of cancer is a question that will be asked for all time, but in doing so, he earned an actor’s sainthood — for both the miracle and the martyrdom.