Arts and Culture

A film adaptation of August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is streaming now on Netflix.

Part of the late, celebrated playwright’s famous 10-play “The Pittsburgh Cycle” reflecting on the Black experience in America throughout the 20th century, it’s the only play from the series not set in Pittsburgh and the only one centered around a real person: Ma Rainey, known as “the Mother of the Blues.” 

The play, and the film, are set in Chicago in 1927, mostly during a recording session for a new Ma Rainey album. 

Tony Award-winning director and playwright George C. Wolfe, who grew up in Frankfort, Ky. and directed the film version of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” remembers the first time he saw the play, in 1984 at Broadway’s Cort Theatre.

“I was sitting in the mezzanine… I remember the language… and it was August’s first play [on Broadway], and everybody was buzzing about this new extraordinary writer,” he said.

Wolfe also recalls the few run-ins he had with Wilson, even an instance of Wilson saying he wanted Wolfe to direct one of his plays someday. 

“We bumped into each other in the bathroom at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago,” Wolf said. “[Wilson] said, ‘Oh, I have a play I want you to direct.’ I remember saying, ‘Well, let me read it.’ And he said, ‘I haven’t written it yet.’” 

Wolfe told Wilson he would need to read it before knowing if he “had anything to offer… and that was that.”

In the meantime, Wolfe racked up theater accolades and credits, including his 1986 work “The Colored Museum,” writing the book for the hit Broadway musical, “Jelly’s Last Jam” about musician Jelly Roll Morton and directing the Broadway debut of Tony Kushner’s, “Angels in America: Millennium Approaches.”

It would be Denzel Washington who would later recruit Wolfe to direct one of Wilson’s plays, and for the screen rather than the stage. Washington was a producer on the “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” film and has said he wants to adapt all of “The Pittsburgh Cycle” works into films.

On working on the film adaptation:

“There’s one thing that you acquire from seeing a play, and then there’s another thing from working on the actual material itself. You get inside the language and you grow to understand how brilliant it is, and the same thing working on the film of ‘Ma Rainey.” I just fell in love with the texture of it, and the language, and these, people call them, monologues, but I call them blues arias that the characters break into.”

On why, nearly 100 years from when the film is set, themes around race, sexuality, faith, even the music industry, resonate today:

“Given the year that we’ve gone through with the shutdown, the protests in the streets, and [the police killing of] George Floyd, and all of that, there are all sorts of clear, obvious references that apply very specifically to race. But Ma’s issues are very much so informed by the fact that she is a Black woman artist, and she’s got to come into contact with the white power structure… I think anybody who is an artist who has a story to tell who is trying to claim their own power inside of a structure that is only interested in feeding itself, hopefully they can find themselves inside of this story as well.”

On why the role of Levee, a young talented musician played in the film by the late Chadwick Boseman, is an ‘embodiment of America’ for him:

“Levee is incredibly smart. He’s very charismatic. He has an understanding of the future. He’s exploding with talent and intelligence, ambition. And at the same time, when he was very young, he experienced two incredibly horrifying things that happened to both of his parents. There’s this pain and the trauma of his past, and I think that is America. It’s like, will we be able to embody the promise of the future? Or will our haunted past keep us from moving forward? And I think that’s the ongoing question of America. That’s the question that we’re all wrestling with. And there are times where events happen, and it brings all those questions to the surface: Will our painful past allow us to experience the promise of the future?”

On the significance of a door in the film; Levee becomes fixated with the door and, at one point in the film, bursts through it: 

“Getting [through] the door doesn’t happen in the play. So it’s something that we created for the film. So Levee goes, ‘did they move the door,’ and then tries to open it and he can’t… In a crucial moment, he finally breaks through that door, and it leads to an empty space… that is racism in America, if you will. That is the complicated legacy, … one can work really hard, you break through and very frequently, when you break through, what one finds is another obstacle that therefore you then must figure out how to break through. And I think that’s very specifically about racial dynamics in America, but I also think it was just true of life, that the one obstacle you think you overcome leads to another obstacle that you have to overcome. It’s challenging, but it’s the test of perseverance, and figuring out how to maintain hope, strength and determination regardless of the obstacles that befall on you.”

On always being pulled toward theater: 

“I always was deeply affected by theater. I went to the Rosenwald School… My mother taught there, and she later became principal there. And every year that we put on these plays, and it was like this other kind of energy that would erupt inside of my brain and my being, while that was going on. And in retrospect, I realized I was studying them. During nap time, when I was in kindergarten, I would use that time to stage plays. And my cousins told me that when we would play house or something like that, I would give other people lines to say. I was less interested in being in it, and more interested in making it.”

On growing up in Frankfort and how being a Black Kentuckian has shaped him as an artist: 

“So the accomplishments that I’ve achieved are great, but my true confidence came from where I’m from. A bad review can’t take away, or a questionable article in The New York Times can’t take away, that sense of power and confidence because it was embedded in me when I was a very, very young person, because for the first eight years of my life, Frankfort, Ky. was segregated. So the community that I’m from they protected me and empowered me, and told me I was smart, and magical, and amazing. So that when I went into the world I wasn’t processing someone else’s definition of myself.”

Stephanie Wolf is WFPL's Arts Reporter.