“For me, my background is poetry, and that’s the foundation on which I approach my plays: the sound of the word, the idea of taking concepts and pressing them into 14 or 22 lines and making a whole, complete statement about something.” — August Wilson, 1987
Of all the playwrights whose dramas probe the human condition, there is no one who expressed themselves in a more poetic fashion, or whose work I admire more, than August Wilson (1945–2005). And how strange is that, really? Our backgrounds couldn’t be more different and the people about whom he wrote in his ten plays — the American Cycle, as they have come to be known — don’t spring from any personal experience of my own. And yet, he’s the most profound and important playwright who came of age in my lifetime. I consider myself fortunate to have had the opportunity of seeing a number of his plays in their original Broadway incarnations over the years, as well as excellent regional theatre productions. In fact, one of the very last plays I attended before theatre was halted in March, was his final play, Radio Golf, at the Two River Theatre in Red Bank, a New Jersey company dedicated to doing every one of the American Cycle (they have five to go).
Playwright August Wilson (1945–2005) in his native Pittsburgh.
In 1984, Ma Rainey was the first play of Wilson’s to open on Broadway and, in the intervening thirty-six years, only the second to be made into a motion picture. The film of his 1987 Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winning Fencescame out in 2016, grossing an impressive $64 million against a $24 million production budget and winning Viola Davis a much-deserved Academy Award. Now with Ma Rainey’s strong reviews and impressive early numbers in Netflix viewership, Wilson’s work is poised to be seen by its most massive audience to date — courtesy of the streaming service that has transformed the way the world gets its movies. That’s not only due to the effects of Covid-19 on the film distribution business, but because of the exquisite vision of director George C. Wolfe as well as the stripped-down adaptation by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, a longtime interpreter of Wilson’s work both as actor and director. What they have provided is a tight, visual means to allow Wilson’s writing to soar: an impassioned discourse of a vitally contemporary subject, while set nearly a century ago.
The real Ma Rainey and her Boys.
Since the film of Fences came out in 2016, we have had the Black Lives Matter movement take hold across the country, bringing a stronger sense of awareness to how deep systemic racism goes. We live in incendiary times, though it is with great hope that with a new government about to be sent to Washington — one with the opposite intent of what’s been instituted over the past four years — guarded optimism may be in the air. And though some might scoff at Ma Rainey as being an entertainment, there is still the chance for minds to be opened after seeing it, especially due to the double impact of viewing the tragedy which befalls the character of Levee in Chadwick Boseman’s heartbreaking performance. The fact that the actor knew he was dying of terminal cancer while filming, and even showed up for additional re-recording of his dialogue just four weeks before he succumbed, imbues his work here with both uplift and dread. To call it merely powerful is to undermine how it seeps into the consciousness of anyone viewing it.
Chadwick Boseman (1976–2020) as Levee, his final film performance
(photo by David Lee/Netflix).
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom appropriates a real-life character in a somewhat fictional story. In Wilson’s telling, “Mother of the Blues” Ma Rainey arrives in a Chicago recording studio in 1927 to set down some of her most popular songs to vinyl. Though renowned in the Deep South, records were still in their infancy, thus the importance of this session to help increase her popularity to the North, though just how remunerative that would be for Ma or other people of color in the music industry was a serious issue. Over the ensuing decades, many were cheated and swindled by having their music misappropriated and handed over to white musicians. Wilson supplies Ma with a small band of characters who accompany her to Chicago: Slow Drag (bass), Toledo (piano) and Cutler (trombone) being the tried and true of the group. But it’s Levee, a young trumpet player who writes his own songs, who has both the imagination and determination to bust out on his own. Tragically, he also has enough anger in him to fuel a furnace, and it is his story intertwined with Ma’s that brings the drama to its surprise conclusion.