In 'Ma Rainey,' channeling the blues of August Wilson

Full Screen
1 / 8


This image released by Netflix shows Chadwick Boseman, from left, Viola Davis and Colman Domingo in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom." (David Lee/Netflix via AP)

NEW YORK – Like many of those involved in the making of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” it’s not easy for Viola Davis to summarize what playwright August Wilson has meant to her except to answer, “Everything.”

Davis' first stage role was in Wilson’s “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.” She made her Broadway debut in his “Seven Guitars” and won a Tony for “King Hedley II.” After playing Rose on Broadway in Wilson’s “Fences,” she reprised the role in Denzel Washington’s 2016 film, winning her an Oscar. Most of all, as a drama student, a new light turned on for Davis when she first encountered Wilson -- a playwright who stood among the other greats. Arthur Miller. Eugene O’Neill. Shakespeare.

“You’re always trying to fit yourself in these roles, trying to make somebody else see you in these roles, transforming into -- in your brain -- some white woman,” Davis says. “With August, when he came along, I didn’t have to do that. Those roles are so much a part of my life. It’s not fitting a square peg into a round hole. It’s something that absolutely speaks to me, that I don’t have to fight to embody. It still takes huge work and craft but I don’t feel like I have to change the canvas of who I am. He is our playwright. He belongs to us.”

George C. Wolfe’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” which begins streaming Friday on Netflix, is the second movie adaptation of Wilson’s plays in an ambitious project spearheaded by Denzel Washington. Following “Fences” and “Ma Rainey,” he intends to continue adapting Wilson’s famed American Century Cycle, a 10-play series spanning each decade of the 20th century. (The '30s-set “The Piano Lesson” is on deck.)

“These films will reach much wider audiences. A lot more people will know the name August Wilson and what his work is about,” says Constanza Romero, Wilson’s widow and executor of his estate. “They speak, unfortunately, to the plight of African Americans today.”

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is unique in the Century Cycle. Set in Chicago 1927, it’s the only one that takes place outside Pittsburgh. All of Wilson's plays hum with the sorrowful beauty of the blues but “Ma Rainey" is soaked through. On a sweaty, summer day, a band has gathered at a white-owned recording studio to cut a new record with Ma Rainey (Davis), the pioneering “Mother of the Blues,” and an unapologetically liberated woman from the South. Rainey was openly bisexual and proudly defiant despite the Jim Crow world around her.

“Me, in my life, I have a tendency to be more timid, more shy, probably have more anxiety,” says Davis. “She’s all the things that I’m not. She’s not someone who feels like she needs to hustle for her work. She knows that she’s worthy. She knows exactly why she’s worthy. She's unapologetic about her sexuality. So when I put it on, I felt my hips swishing more. I even felt like I walked better in heels as Ma Rainey than I do as Viola.”

Despite the title, the central, pivotal character of the play is Levee (Chadwick Boseman, in his final performance ), an ambitious trumpeter with a more updated take on Rainey’s music and big dreams of breaking out on his own. As played by Boseman, he’s a painfully tragic figure, haunted by the traumas of slavery while grasping for an out-of-reach future. In that way, he represents the struggles of 100 years ago just as he does those of today.