You may not know that actor Denzel Washington has dedicated much of his career in the film industry to producing August Wilson’s plays, ten of which make up his “Pittsburgh Cycle.” Washington also directed and starred in Fences (2016), the first big-screen adaptation of Wilson’s, costarring Viola Davis, after both won Tonys for their performances in the 2010 Broadway revival of the play. And now Davis stars in the role of Ma Rainey, the “Mother of the Blues,” in the second production, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, now playing on Netflix and starring the late Chadwick Boseman.
Boseman died not long after giving his final, electrifying performance here as Levee, the trumpet player whose raging ambition puts him at fateful odds with Ma Rainey and his bandmates in one long, sweltering recording session in 1927 Chicago. It seems Boseman told no one involved in the project, including his producer (Washington), director (multiple Tony Award winner George C. Wolfe), and costars, that he was dying of colon cancer at age forty-three. “When I look back on it, I go, ‘Oh, that’s why he was tired between takes sometimes, or he had to go back to his trailer and reenergize,'” recalled Washington.
This awareness adds a posthumous layer of pain to the experience of an already excruciating work. Boseman’s performance as Levee is an agony to watch. His lean, grinning face and glittering eyes at the outset are lit with an unnerving overconfidence that frequently stuns his bandmates, who alternately mock, argue, and try to reason with his hubris. Because he knows how to deal with white people, Levee’s convinced he’s going to make the leap from jazz trumpeter to successful composer and bandleader in one single jump. He reveals this in a monologue that emerges from an angry outburst, sparked by mockery from his bandmates accusing him of deploying Uncle Tom behaviors to get what he wants.
If you know classic theater of the twentieth century — Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, William Inge, Arthur Miller, Lorraine Hansberry — you know the kind of monologue I mean, because it always seems to gush out like blood at a climactic point of the play. It’s this monologue, and the rhythm of hopelessness and tragedy that is established in its lead-up and descent, that has kept me out of the theater for many years. I dread it even when it’s well done — especially when it’s well done.
It’s very well done here. And I admit that even I wouldn’t have wanted to miss these performances.
Viola Davis is shockingly great as Ma Rainey. I’ve only seen one other actor convey so convincingly the formidable qualities of people from older, rougher times, to the point of making them truly frightening, and that’s Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood. With her deadly glare, and the way she moves her impressive bulk, Davis’s Rainey is a woman seared to a shocking level of toughness and prepared to battle every day, every hour, every minute, if need be, to get what she wants out of a world built to deny her.
She’s introduced as the star performer in a juke joint, set up in a tent and drawing a big crowd in the rural South. Everything about her communicates a thrillingly fearless style, from her heavy makeup running with sweat, to her big, curvaceous body decked out in spangled gown and feathers and swaying to the rhythm of her raunchy song, to the highly individual effects she achieves with her rasping blues voice.
Her ownership of that style and choice of song arrangement will be contested when she gets up north in Chicago, which she “don’t like noways,” for a recording session set up by her white manager, Irvin (Jeremy Shamos), with a dismissive white producer and studio owner (Jonny Coyne). How is her hit song “Black Bottom,” with its sexual joke punctuating every line, going to be delivered? She’s determined on the classic blues style she pioneered, which is just beginning to fade in popularity as the swinging jazz style embraced by Levee is on the rise. The white producer sides with Levee. But Ma Rainey is determined that “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” will prevail.
She’s also determined that her beverage (a Coca-Cola) be supplied by the producer as promised, that her nephew Sylvester sing the intro to the song though he suffers from a terrible stutter, and so on. The real Ma Rainey certainly was revered by black musicians for the way she would fight to get them fair pay, but in Wilson’s play, we see the grim necessity of Rainey battling to get every last thing dangled by owners who only value the money she generates.
But the dread doesn’t end with the gut-wrenching monologue — there’s the inevitable, doom-laden symbolism. In Ma Rainey, it involves a mysteriously locked door in the rehearsal room that can’t be opened no matter how many different ways you try it. Levee finally breaks it open and finds himself in an open-air space that’s also a brick-walled dead end. In short, it’s not going to matter how hard Levee tries, or how talented he is, or how smart his strategy. Nothing will work, and for all his popping energy, he’s not really going anywhere.
I could never have watched this while my late husband, Felipe, was alive. He couldn’t have endured it, because even from another room in the house, he might have accidentally overheard a few words of dialogue, or even just the rhythm of the speech, and from that, known in his bones the whole tragedy being enacted. The twentieth-century black experience was such an agonizing one for him that it was an act of will to visit his own family, though he loved them. You see this agony in all August Wilson plays, endless versions of the tortured black family gathering where the intensity of shared history and shared pain is so great, it can’t be papered over. It pierces through the most engaging philosophy, the funniest repartee, the highest spirits. There’s always the risk of a sudden terrible silence, or a burst of misplaced hostility that should’ve been aimed outward at a rabidly unjust world but goes inward instead and wounds one of your own.
Wilson’s plays about black life in America always seem to feature the most tormenting combination of expansive potential and hopes for the future with inevitable doom. The playwright once summed up his creative work in one short story he wrote called “The Best Blues Singer in the World”:
[I]t went like this — “The streets that Balboa walked were his own private ocean, and Balboa was drowning.” End of story. That says it all . . . All my plays are rewriting that same story. I’m not sure what it means, other than life is hard.