All hail Ma Rainey.
The real-life Mother of the Blues gets star power treatment of such high wattage it can scarcely be measured.
Peerless acting, a tight ensemble, cinematography burnished to a warm, heraldic bronze, class-act direction, music that heals the hunger inside and costumes that fit the characters like kidskin gloves all work together to bring Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s screen adaptation of August Wilson’s play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom to exhilarating, abundant life.
It’s like a rare comet streaking across your home screen. Never have you seen anything like it. Never will you see anything like it again.
That is, in part, due to the death of Chadwick Boseman earlier this year. He plays Levee, the impetuous firebrand horn player in Ma’s band, with a ferocity and dancer’s physicality that is all the more astonishing since it is his final role and one he nailed while gravely ill.
You see no shadow of mortality in Boseman’s performance, although his soliloquy where he argues and rails against God is now given a one-two punch of poignancy and unfairness. Lean as a whippet and with fire in his eyes, Boseman’s Levee is emboldened with life—a mouthy, ambitious musician who thinks he can beat the white man at his own game from the inside. In the end, who is Levee? Yes, he’s a two-bit, session horn player who’s his own worst enemy, but in August Wilson’s world, he counts, and his story needs to be told.
As does Ma Rainey’s (Viola Davis), who sways and swaggers through the white-owned music business by giving them what they want in due time—and as long as she gets hers first. Never has shimmying been so majestic as in the hands (and hips) of Davis, who gives the phrase “shake your money-maker” layered depths of meaning. Ma’s presence fills any room she’s in—whether it’s a tent in rural Georgia or a recording studio in downtown Chicago–fleshily and unapologetically and that could be daunting for an actress, but Davis seems to revel in the audacious freedom of taking up so damn much space.
Ma Rainey takes place in a single day in Chicago, where a group of musicians—Levee (Boseman), the appeasing Cutler (Colman Domingo), bookish Toledo (Glynn Turman) and affable Slow Drag (Michael Potts)—wait for Ma to show up to record her music. While her White manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) and White producer Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne) fret and stand outside looking for Ma, the band rehearses, shoots the breeze, razzes each other and trades stories.
Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s screen adaptation moves the play out of its one-room, one-day setting, but astutely opens it up to the world outside the recording studio. Santiago-Hudson also brings in Ma much earlier than the stage play did, which puts her where she has every right to be—front and center. And there’s a new ending that will leave you stunned, a discreet and devastating nod to White appropriation of Black culture.
Ma shows up late demanding a Coke before uttering a note, with her flirtatious girlfriend Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige) and nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown) in tow. Dressed by costume designer Ann Roth in regal hues of gold and royal blue, flinging her summer furs—a delicious touch—with Aretha-like attitude and wearing greasepaint-style make up that gives her a bruised grandeur, Ma is a tempest in a teapot.
Wilson is known for the jazz-like cadence of his dialogue and the scenes between the seasoned Ma and the hot-headed Levee crackle like a play-off between King Oliver and Buddy Bolden—Levee’s notes swooping and darting around Ma’s slow groove.
However, the play—and the movie—is not just two roles. From Turman’s Toledo shamanistic insistence that we all know the past and “make your history,” and Potts’ laid-back virtuosity as Slow Drag, to Paige’s canny seductiveness as Dussie Mae, the players bring richness and subtext to every scene. Kudos to Colman Domingo for the hard scrabble levelheadness of his Cutler. A quiet scene between Ma and Cutler talking about the blues the way old friends do is a master class in intimacy and ease.
Seeing Ma Rainey – the play and the woman—get their due at this point in time, is an unexpected and joyous coda to a year that brought us all to our knees.
As DC Theatre Scene ceases publication on December 31, I couldn’t end my career as a theater critic on a higher note.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Streaming on netflix.com
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom . Screenplay by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, based on the play by August Wilson . Featuring: Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Colman Domingo, Glynn Turman, Michael Potts, Jeremy Shamos, Jonny Coyne, Taylour Paige, Dusan Brown. . Director: George C. Wolfe. Music: Branford Marsalis. Cinematography: Tobias A. Schliessler. Editing: Andrew Mondshein. Production Design: Mark Ricker. Set Decoration: Karen O’Hara ad Diana Stoughton. Costume Design: Ann Roth. Produced by Denzel Washington, Todd Black and Dany Wolf for Netflix . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.