The late August Wilson’s Tony-nominated play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom returns to the spotlight — but this time it’s on-screen, courtesy of celebrated director George C. Wolfe. The film adaptation of the play, about a blues singer and her band during a recording session in the 1920s, features Viola Davis in the titular role opposite Broadway veterans Colman Domingo, Glynn Turman, and Michael Potts, as well as the late Chadwick Boseman, who all play Ma’s bandmates. We caught up with Wolfe and the band to talk reimagining Ma Rainey for the big screen, streaming on Netflix beginning this Friday, December 18.
George, as a theater artist, what was it like to bring this play to the screen?
GEORGE C. WOLFE: It was a lot of hard work. We had 30 days to shoot, which was great, and we had an amazing cast and crew. I was working with Ruben Santiago-Hudson [screenplay] and Denzel Washington [producer] — you know, we have a partnership from working on The Iceman Cometh on Broadway. Everybody in the cast, they’re all theater people. We had a two-week rehearsal period prior to anything being filmed. And so it was a fun, smart, joyful journey that we all went on together. I’m very proud of it.
Glynn, how about bringing August Wilson’s voice to a global audience?
GLYNN TURMAN: It was just a phenomenal experience. It gives you a sense of the depth of the importance of this moment, you know, being a part of this wonderful production. It’s getting everything that it deserves, which is really exciting. Thanks to Denzel Washington, August Wilson is being lauded in the way he should be.
George, was Viola Davis a given for the role of Ma Rainey?
GEORGE: Denzel and I said “Viola.” He said “Viola” and I said “Viola,” and so, Viola — there you go!
You directed Chadwick Boseman’s final performance before his untimely death in August at the age of 43. Chadwick played the role of Levee in your film.
GEORGE: Chadwick — you know, I have trouble with past tense with him. It was a joy watching him go on the journey of stripping himself emotionally bare and becoming Levee. It’s so interesting, because it’s such a Herculean role and it’s an astonishing role. We filmed all of Viola’s scenes early on because she had to get back to her TV series. So a lot of Chadwick’s monster moments were shot in the last week. And so I saw this, you know, brilliant actor — this charming, brilliant, deep actor fully commit ferociously, emotionally, spiritually to every single scene take, take after take. So every single moment that I had working with him on the film was a moment filled with vibrancy and veracity and commitment. So that’s what I continue and wear with me to this very day.
Colman, you have a very intense scene with Chadwick toward the end of the film. What was it like creating that for the screen?
COLMAN DOMINGO: That scene in particular required just an incredible amount of trust in each other, to hold space for one another, to go to those places. And that scene is the four of us wrestling with ideology with the words and text that August Wilson gave us. And so we were very open, because George had a very open room that allowed us to really establish that trust so we could do this work. And in the aftermath, knowing that Chad was doing that work as someone who is struggling with cancer and knowing he was working with these able-bodied men who were — it was also strenuous on us — I can’t even imagine the kind of strength and faith that it took for him to do that work. I’m incredibly humbled that I got a chance to work with him. And this film is a true testament and part of his legacy of being such a courageous, strong human, and I think his performance will last forever.
It feels like we’re going through a much-needed reset when it comes to Hollywood, and even theater. I feel like having this story back in the spotlight now is essential.
MICHAEL POTTS: Absolutely. It’s part of August Wilson’s American Century Cycle: the struggle for humanity and agency for Black people in this country and obstacles that we face on a very personal and unique level, and also on a societal level, and as artists as well, which is happening in the film and in this particular story. So it’s incredibly topical.
George, I love your nod to the real Ma Rainey at the end of the film. She’s in there.
GEORGE: There are only seven pictures of Ma Rainey in existence — period. And so we went digging around and wanted to try to find them because I wanted to, you know, it’s a work of fiction based on a true character. And I just wanted to leave this moment because the final image that is seen is this band who has stolen, in essence, Levee’s song. I wanted to leave the audience with, that Ma Rainey’s music survived and the story of her survived. And so that’s her verse and voice, and those are only five of the seven images that have survived her legacy.
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