The late August Wilson wrote a suite of 10 plays about the life of African Americans in the 20th century. Each play is set in a different decade. The Piano Lesson (1985) and Fences (1990) both won the Pulitzer prize for drama. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom predates them and it is the only one of the 10 plays not set in Pittsburgh. Denzel Washington announced a few years ago he wants to film all 10 plays over coming years. His version of Fences, in which he directed and starred, came out in 2017, to considerable acclaim.
For this new production, he acts as producer. The director is George C. Wolfe, a celebrated New York theatre director with more Tonys than would fit on one mantelpiece, and enough television and movie experience to give confidence for this job. Oddly, the writer is credited as Ruben Santiago-Hudson, adapting Wilson’s play. Wolfe and Hudson worked together on filming Hudson’s play Lackawanna Blues in 2005 – the same year Wilson died.
The adaptation of Wilson’s play is largely a nip and tuck job – with the addition of one new scene at the start, showing Ma Rainey belting out her gut-bucket blues in a rural tent show. It does at least establish who she is – given that her first appearance at the recording studio comes after about 30 minutes of dialogue between the band members.
The key player of the four supporting musicians is Levee (Chadwick Boseman), a gifted but hot-headed young trumpeter who wants to jazz up Ma Rainey’s arrangements. He clashes repeatedly with Cutler (Colman Domingo), the mellow band leader, and everyone else. Toledo (Glynn Turman), the ageing pianist, tries to calm him down with philosophical ramblings about the sorry lot of the coloured man. Slow Drag, the bassist (Michael Potts) just wishes the kid would shut the hell up.
Each of these men is at a different point in the process of learning to live with the white man – and that is the real subject of the play. Ma Rainey has achieved power through popularity and she has no hesitation about using it, on black or white men. She reserves her love for Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige), her vacuous but pretty girlfriend.
Ma’s bitterness is like a poison that even her singing can’t expel. For the others, to be a black man in a white man’s world is a daily exercise in humiliation. Wilson gives that bitterness a poignant voice. It’s unsettling and wrenching to see that pain exposed, and to see how each of them tries to outrun it.
Wolfe directs the actors with skill and poise. Every performance is solid. It’s especially sad to watch Boseman tearing up the screen as the hot-headed Levee. He was battling cancer throughout the filming, and died at the age of 43 during post-production, last August. His career took off in 2013 when he played Jackie Robinson in 42. He was the title character in Black Panther in 2018. His work here shows depth and power. Another one gone too soon.