‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ | Anatomy of a Scene


Hi I’m George C. Wolfe, and I’m the director of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” “You’re supposed to play the song like I sing it, the way everybody else play it.” “Playing a song, I was playing it the way I felt it.” This scene takes place toward the end of the film. Ma Rainey has been tolerating Levee. He’s been flirting with her girlfriend, Dussie Mae. She does not like anything about him. He’s impulsive, he tries to take over, and she has a very specific way of dealing with her music. And I think she’s also threatened by him, because he is emblematic of the future. Viola Davis is playing Ma Rainey. Chadwick Boseman is playing Levee. “You’re fired.” And then the other band members are Colman Domingo, Glynn Turman, and Michael Potts. “You think I care about being fired? I don’t care nothing about that. You’re doing me a favor.” So you’re watching this very astute person cornering a raw energy and striking out, which then motivates him to strike out, which then gives her permission to destroy him. One of the dynamics that is very interesting about Levee, and was particularly fascinating with Chadwick, is that he was able to capture in a glorious way, sort of the charm and the intelligence of the character. But then in this moment, he’s stripped of all of that. And he becomes just a series of impulses, but those impulses are based on a bravura that no longer exists. In the play, August has Levee mention that this door is different, that there’s something about this door that is different. That door wasn’t there, and that they argue with him and say, yeah that door was there. The last time they were there recording, he was in another room. But he doesn’t let it go, because Levee doesn’t know how to let go of anything. And he just goes on and on about the door. And so, it became really interesting to me, why did August craft this moment? And then what’s on the other side of this door? And then it came to me to have nothing be on the other side of the door. It became the penultimate manifestation of his frustration and the sense of powerlessness he was feeling in the moment.



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