By Sharon Eberson
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom comes out singing the blues and never stops, even when the music isn’t playing.
The second Oscar-worthy adaptation of an August Wilson work in four years bursts beyond the play’s theatrical constraints from its first moments. And unlike the play, it doesn’t make you wait for the grand entrances of its star players.
The musical number at the outset establishes award-winning actress Viola Davis in the role of the real-life Gertrude “Ma” Rainey and Chadwick Boseman as Levee, the brash trumpet player with big dreams.
We meet them in a tent in circa-1927 Georgia, as Levee tries to upstage the star and flirts with her girlfriend.
Needless to say, Ma is not amused.
Before the action shifts from Georgia to Illinois, photos and clippings give evidence of the Black migration to northern cities like Chicago and Pittsburgh, a frequent Wilson theme.
When the scene moves north to a Chicago recording studio, and the owner asks, “Where is she?,” and “Where is the trumpet player?,” we already know which one is keeping everyone waiting and we know to buckle up. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.
Without a word, Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s screenplay has established the post-industrial diaspora of the era and the conflict between Ma and Levee, and perhaps most tellingly, it gives the audience what many have come to see: Viola Davis decked out as the Mother of the Blues, and “Black Panther” star Chadwick Boseman in his final role, before his death in August, at age 42.
Davis, who won the 2017 best supporting actress Oscar for Denzel Washington’s adaptation of “Fences,” leads a powerhouse team in conveying the 1920s installment of Wilson’s American Century Cycle, with all but “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” set in the Hill District.
That didn’t stop the movie’s producers, among them Washington and Wilson’s widow, Constanza Romero, from bringing the production to the writer’s hometown.
“Ma Rainey” is the work that established the Pittsburgh playwright as a theatrical force on Broadway, in 1984, with the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Fences” to follow in 1987.
The title is taken from Ma Rainey’s signature song, music that spoke volumes to Wilson. The playwright, who died at age 60 in 2005, not only wrote in the mournful, rhythmic language of the blues, he declared, “I am the blues.”
As he lets Ma tell it, “White folk don’t understand about the blues. They hear it come out, but they don’t know how it got there. They don’t understand that it’s life’s way of talking. You don’t sing to feel better. You sing because that’s understanding life. This’d be an empty world without the blues.”
Ma says this in conversation with bandleader Cutler (Colman Domingo) as she waits for the cold Coke she was promised on a hot summer day. When none is waiting for her, she refuses to continue until the bottles are in hand.
The songs in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” come stingily after the opening number, although music director Branford Marsalis did a deep dive into what Levee derisively calls the “jugband” sound — husky-voiced Ma Rainey was not swayed to change her style as the Jazz Age roared around her.
Davis sings “Those Dogs Of Mine” — “dogs” in this case being “feet,” as in “Oh how my corns did burn” and, unlike Levee, “I can’t wear me no sharp-toed shoes.” Other songs are vocalized by soul singer Maxayn Lewis, a former Ikette with Ike & Tina Turner.
Vocals aside, Davis imbues Ma with furious pride and glimpses of vulnerability — the seductive Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige) is an obvious weak spot. The actress, armored in heavy padding and eyes glaring beyond a sea of coal-black down to her cheeks, demands not just respect but subservience from any who would challenge Ma’s will.
She’s the moneymaker at this party, and she makes sure no one forgets it.
That includes the white men who are beholding to her at this session: her manager, Irvin (Jeremy Shamos), who spends most of his time cajoling or giving in to Ma, and Mel Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne), the owner and engineer of the studio. Mel barely conceals his distaste for Ma and her band members, who spend most of the movie sequestered in a basement rehearsal area.
In their claustrophobic quarters, in the heat of day and with delays mounting, frustrations and resentments begin to roil.
Elder statesman and pianist Toledo (Glynn Turman) is quick to impart wisdom and criticism, while bassist Slow Drag (Michael Potts) moves to his own rhythms and trombonist and Cutler struggles to keep the players in harmony. At least until the end of the session.
Boseman, whose theater roots include a production of his play “Hieroglyphic Graffiti” by Pittsburgh’s Kuntu Repertory Theater, has the flashiest role as Levee, and is elevated by matching wits with a band of distinguished scene partners.
You may not know their names but you probably know their faces. Veteran actor Turman, for example, plays a key role in the current season of FX’s’s “Fargo,” and Domingo can be seen opposite Zendaya in HBO’s “Euphoria.” Potts, soon to be seen in “The Prom” on Netflix, was among the stars of the Tony-winning revival of WIlson’s “Jitney,” directed by Santiago-Hudson. “Ma Rainey” proves to be another standout in their long list of credits.
The bandmates serve as catalysts for Boseman’s character, in a film dedicated to the late actor’s “artistry and heart.” Both are on display in Levee, who enters with spiffy new wingtips and gloating about his own arrangements and songs.
His bandmates aren’t having any of it.
Turman’s Toledo is particularly put off by Levee’s bravado and lack of concern for the task at hand. In an exchange about “just having a good time,” Toledo lectures that more Black people “got killed having a good time than God’s got ways to count.”
When Levee is teased for showing deference to the white studio owner, he finally breaks down and explains why what they see isn’t necessarily the whole story.
In a harrowing monologue about the violence and racism that has shaped the man Levee has become, the camera captures Boseman’s every expression of pain and outrage, and we witness what the buzz for a posthumous Oscar is all about.
In another telling scene, when Mel takes hold of Levee’s music, Boseman’s expression of hope mixed with doubt needs no words to create a palpable foreboding.
Tension permeates the screenplay by Santiago-Hudson, a Tony-winner for Wilson’s “Seven Guitars” and a Drama Desk-winner for “The Piano Lesson” off-Broadway.
While Wilson spent his childhood in the HIll District, absorbing the atmosphere and characters that would become the subjects of his plays, Santiago-Hudson was a frequent visitor to relatives in Clairton. His empathy for and familiarity with the material shows.
He and “Ma Rainey” director George C. Wolfe (14 Tony nominations, including two wins) collaborated previously on the Emmy-nominated TV movie “Lackawanna Blues.”
Their adaptation of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” that hits Netflix on Dec. 18, after a stint in movie theaters, clocks in at a lean hour and 34 minutes. It’s an achievement that honors the original and delivers a tightly told tale with emotional punch and visual impact.
For cinematic interest, several scenes defy the settings of Wilson’s version and move outside of the studio. For example, a fender-bender that is spoken of but unseen in the play is staged here. It’s also where Pittsburghers can see evidence that the movie was filmed in their hometown.
While interiors were mostly created at the 31st Street Studios in the Strip District, outdoor scenes were shot on West North Avenue on the North Side.
Vintage cars time-traveled to a street lined by facades transformed with circa-1920s signage, as Pittsburgh stands in for Chicago.
A separate interior takes place at what appears to be a swanky hotel, where patrons stare as Ma sashays past the dining room, flanked by Dussie Mae and her nephew, Sylvester (Dusan Brown).
When Ma finally arrives at the studio, relief quickly is replaced by a rise in blood pressure.
Levee recklessly pursues Dussie Mae, and Ma pours fuel on the tense session by insisting that her stuttering nephew be heard on the recording.
The blues are written all over this sweltering day that had begun with hopes of making music and earning a few dollars. But in the Wilsonian world, high hopes and good times are luxuries that few Black people can hold onto for more than fleeting moments.
The dashed hopes of Black Americans are particularly resonant in August Wilson’s plays, even as he gained fame writing about them.
In “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” there are some glimmers of hope, such as in the strength of the title character — a Black, gay woman who controlled her own destiny against all odds, through her talent and sheer force of will.
The other old hand of the piece, Toledo, delivers the message that perhaps is most resonant, across decades, from the 1920s to the 2020s, from Wilson’s Hill District roots to Black Lives Matter.
“The colored man won’t get ahead until he realizes that he is the white man’s leftovers,” Toledo tells young Levee. When questioned about what one man can do to effect change, Toledo schools his bandmates:
“I said ‘we.’ You understand that? That’s every living colored man in the world gotta do his part. … I’m talking about what all of us got to do. Together.”
Maybe there is a ray of hope amid the blues after all.
Ahead of its Dec. 18 release on Netflix, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is playing in Pittsburgh exclusively at the Manor Theater in Squirrel Hill. Info: www.manorpgh.com
Sharon Eberson is a Pittsburgh-based theater and pop culture writer and critic.