Viola Davis and Company on ‘Ma Rainey’ and Chadwick Boseman’s Last Bow
A nation riven by racial violence, an industry with a history of exploiting Black culture, white executives eager to portray themselves as allies, and Black artists at the center of it all, contending with a system that would toast them with one arm and pick their pockets with the other.
The story of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” August Wilson’s acclaimed 1982 play about Black pride, white power and the blues in 1927 Chicago, is as incendiary today as the day it was written. A new feature film adaptation, due on Netflix Dec. 18, revives Wilson’s historical narrative in a contemporary moment when so much and so little has changed.
The second entry in his 10-play American Century Cycle, chronicling the Black experience in each decade of the 20th century, “Rainey” won three Tonys for its original run on Broadway. The film adaptation is already an awards contender for next year, thanks to a searing lead performance from Viola Davis and a powerful showing by Chadwick Boseman, in his final film role before his death from cancer in August.
Davis plays Ma, an indomitable performer based on the real-life “Mother of the Blues,” whose unprecedented superstardom has taken her from tent shows in Barnesville, Ga., to a recording session in Chicago. The white men overseeing the session, visions of dollar signs dancing in their heads, fear and respect Ma like everyone else in her gravity-bending orbit, including her girlfriend Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige) and quartet of seasoned backing musicians: Levee (Boseman), Cutler (Colman Domingo), Toledo (Glynn Turman) and Slow Drag (Michael Potts). But when Levee’s own career ambitions put him at odds with the group, its fragile infrastructure threatens to implode.
The Tony winner George C. Wolfe (“Angels in America”) directed the film from a script adapted by Ruben Santiago-Hudson. In a recent round-table conversation, conducted via video chat, Wolfe, Davis, Domingo, Turman and Potts discussed working with Boseman, Rainey’s potent legacy and asserting your worth in a world built on your devaluation. These are edited (and spoiler-free) excerpts from our conversation.
The movie is dedicated to Chadwick Boseman, who delivers an unforgettable performance as Levee. What are some of your memories of working with him? What did he bring to the performance that you saw as his collaborators that we might not know about as viewers?
GEORGE C. WOLFE I remember one time, when the band was just sitting around during rehearsal, he started to launch into one of his final monologues. It had all been very casual. And then, at a certain point, it wasn’t casual — it was a fully invested moment that was full of energy and intensity and truth. I just remember thinking, “Oh, we’re going there?” And he went there. We were all sort of half the characters and half who we were, and then, in that moment, the half that was the character took over. And it was kind of glorious.
GLYNN TURMAN I loved the way he always had his cornet nearby. He was always doing something with it, becoming familiar with it, discovering how a musician and his instrument become one. Anytime he picked it up, it was in the right position. Anytime he set it down, it was in the right position. Anytime he put it to his mouth, it was in the right position. He became a musician. It was wonderful to watch that. We all kind of took that cue not to be outdone, as actors do. [Laughter]
COLMAN DOMINGO That’s the truth.
WOLFE Who, this group? I’m confused. [Laughter]
I wonder, when you look at his performance now or when you watch the film, does it play differently at all for any of you in light of his passing? Has its meaning changed for you in any way?
DOMINGO Absolutely. I watched it the other night and I heard Chad’s language in a different way. You see his strength and his humor. It brought tears to my eyes very early on, knowing what I know now. And knowing we were all very well able-bodied people and we were doing this tremendous work, showing up and wrestling with August’s language. This man had another massive struggle on top of that. I don’t know how he did it. I sat with myself for a good 15 minutes after watching it and I had a little cry, especially when I saw the dedication. It truly struck me that he’s not with us. I knew he wasn’t, but to see that written, it kind of decimated me.
VIOLA DAVIS There was a transcendence about Chad’s performance, but there needed to be. This is a man who’s raging at God, who’s lost even his faith. So [Boseman has] got to sort of go to the edge of hope and death and life in order to make that character work. Of course, you look back on it and see that that’s where he was.
I always say, a carpenter or anyone else that does work, they need certain tools in order to create. Our tool is us. We’ve got to use us. There’s no way to just sort of bind whatever you’re going through and leave it in your hotel. You’ve got to bring that with you, and you need permission to do that. And he went there, he really did.
George and Viola, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is the only play in August Wilson’s American Century Cycle that is inspired by a real-life public figure. What do you think it is about her story that is ripe for drama?
WOLFE I think one of the reasons that August was drawn to her is [that] she lived outside the rules. And when somebody lives outside the rules, it becomes very clear what the rules are. I love that she’s going to fight the fight, not thinking about the consequences. She’s going to fight the fight because she must. She reminds me of … my grandmother was like this. If you were a Black woman, if you waited around for somebody to acknowledge your power, it was never going to happen. So you had to claim your power. She has that quality that everybody has to evolve if you are an artist, period, and if you are an artist of color, magnified: This is the truth and this is my talent, and this is what I’m willing to do and this is what I’m not willing to do. I think she lived her life so purely that way. And if you set that in 1927, you’ve got drama, because the world isn’t acknowledging any of that.
DAVIS One of the things I love about August is he gives us something that we have not had in a lot of narratives, especially in movies: autonomy. We’re always sort of shown in a filter of a white gaze. It’s like how Toni Morrison talks about “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison. She’s like, “Invisible to whom?” August defines us in private. If you ask any one of us who are on this Zoom call if we know anyone like Ma Rainey, who could beat your ass on Thursday and be in church on Sunday, who is unapologetic about their value, we grew up with people like that. And certainly, I think that it’s a great start for a narrative, to have a woman who was known for her autonomy, who did not barter for her worth, and the men who were around her.
Viola, talk to me about stepping into the character of Ma Rainey. There is literally stepping into the costume, but there’s also the way she carries herself and the way she interacts with the world around her. Where did you find inspiration, and what did it feel like to become her on set?
DAVIS You just have to look at the given circumstances. They said she had makeup that was like grease paint that was melting off her face. In the tent [during her performances], she always looked like she was covered in sweat. She was always wet-looking. She had a mouth full of gold teeth. She was described as not attractive. But because she was such a nurturer, some people were attracted to her.
Like everything, I always say that if someone did a story about my life and they went to my husband and daughter, maybe talked to my mom, you’d still only get about 40 percent of me. The other part, you have to rely on your observations in life. You have to in order to get at what is driving that person. What are they living for? That’s when I had to get into my Aunt Joyce and other Black women that I know to fill in the blanks. Who was she in private? Who was she when she was with her women? Even if you didn’t necessarily see it, I had to use that as fuel.
Glynn, Colman and Michael, so much of the electricity of the film comes from the interactions between the boys in the band. There’s a kind of jocularity and a camaraderie among you, but there’s also a current of tension and rivalry. Tell me about how you worked together to create that dynamic.
TURMAN It starts from a place of really being able to enjoy each other’s company. I think we had a dinner one evening after rehearsal where we all went out after just meeting one another. Our friendship built on that foundation. Just like in real life, the pains and the discomfort come from how well you know one another, because the people who you know are the only people that can really get to you. So we all took great pain in trying to get to know one another within the time frame we had. That way, we were comfortable cussing each other out and giving each other [expletive]. And that took place onscreen and offscreen. [Laughter]
MICHAEL POTTS It never stopped. You’re on set with a bunch of men who ain’t got no sense. They ain’t got no damn sense at all. [Laughter]
DOMINGO I remember Chad came in one day. It was early in the rehearsal. He would come in with his hat cocked to the side and the trumpet with him. He comes in a room quietly, very gracefully. And I don’t know if it’s the Cutler in me as well, but I’m like, “Oh, so you just think you ain’t going to speak to nobody when you come in? You walk indoors and don’t talk to nobody?” [Laughter] He said, “Ah, no, no!” We were jocular in that way. But, from then on, he made sure every morning he came and said hello to his brothers and showed respect. Because the feeling was: We can’t be in our own heads. We’ve got to come in and just give over to each other. And that’s what we did.
One of the major questions presented by the film is how you come to terms with your place in the world — as an artist and entertainer, but also as a Black person at the bottom of a rigid racial hierarchy. I’m curious if there were elements of the characters’ stories that resonated with any of you in your own artistic and professional journeys.
DOMINGO I think that’s why this play is so resonant, especially for Black artists. You’re always trying to make sure your voice is heard, just speaking up and speaking the truth and saying, “No, my place in the world should be elevated because of what I give. I’m just asking for what I deserve, that’s it.” I think [the characters] are asking for that. I know, truly, that I’m asking for it. We’re all asking for it every day. We wake up fighting for it, go to sleep thinking about fighting for it. And we’re fighting for the next generation more than anything, trying to move the dial.
DAVIS I find it exhausting. I do. I find it very necessary but exhausting. You’re fighting for your place. You’re fighting to be seen. You’re fighting to be heard. It’s always a fight. And it’s a fight for the simplest things that are given to other people without an exchange.
My big thing is when I have to fight for my ability. I can’t stand that. That part of me is the part that went to 10 years of acting school, that did all of that theater, Off Broadway, Broadway, did TV, or whatever. And then you go into a room in Hollywood and you see that has a short shelf life when it’s attached to somebody Black. That’s what pisses me off. I don’t like when people question my ability. But I feel like that’s what all of August’s plays are about — fighting for one’s place in the world. And here’s the other thing: You don’t have to be a king or a queen. You don’t have to be someone up high. He has infused importance into our lives, even if we didn’t make it into a history book.