When August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom opened on Broadway in 1984, there hadn’t been a Black play on the Rialto since Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun in 1959. Wilson had never read Hansberry; in fact, he’d never read any of the great American playwrights, to whom his name would be added for his majestic “Century Cycle”—10 plays that chronicled the shifting experience of Black Americans in every decade of the 20th century. (Wilson died at 60 in 2005.)
“It took me eight years to find my voice as a poet,” he told me. “I read so much, I didn’t know who was me. So when I started writing plays in 1978, I didn’t want to spend eight years to find my voice as a playwright.” He added: “I’ll just feel my way through it.”
By the time Wilson made his Broadway debut with Ma Rainey, he already had drafts of Fences (1987) and his masterpiece, Joe Turner Come and Gone (1988), in his drawer. Wilson had found his voice and a way of calling attention to his Blackness; so has Ma Rainey, whose funky, unabashed, Southern blues are a raucous antidote to what the novelist and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston called “the muteness of slavery.”
Set in Chicago in 1927, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom dramatizes the struggle of Blacks to claim their identity and to demonstrate their personality to the uncurious, unwelcoming white world. “All they want is my voice. Well, I done learned that and they gonna treat me like I want to be treated no matter how much it hurt them,” says the impudent, clear-eyed Ma, whose swaggering imperiousness is a form of rough justice, signaling in its vindictive triumph that she isn’t giving up anything but bubblegum and hard times.
Wilson had found his voice and a way of calling attention to his Blackness.
In expanding Wilson’s superb drama for the screen, the director George C. Wolfe adds his own shrewd anthropological eye to Wilson’s. He makes sure the audience understands the new landscape of 20s technology: how records were pressed, how microphones and electrical recording improved sound quality, how the recent arrival of commercial radio allowed Ma Rainey, played with barnstorming bravado by Viola Davis, to broadcast herself far afield from the South’s Chitlin’ Circuit, where she reigned as “Mother of the Blues,” to urban markets such as Chicago, whose population was swelling from the migration of rural Southern Blacks to the big industrial Northern cities. “This be an empty world without the blues. I take that emptiness and try to fill it up with something,” she says.
That estrangement—the unmooring trauma of slavery—is on display in the bantering of the band members as they wait for Rainey and her retinue to make their royal entrance. “We’re just leftovers,” Toledo (Glynn Turman), the piano player and only literate member of the band, tells Levee (the late Chadwick Boseman), the swaggering trumpet player. “The white man knows you just a leftover. ’Cause he the one who done the eating and he knows what he done ate.”
In his up-tempo playing, full of improvised slurred notes and burnished glissandi, Levee is a kind of joyful disciple of Louis Armstrong—himself a newcomer to Chicago in 1922 with King Oliver’s Band. Levee disdains Ma’s “jug band” sound; he dreams of writing his own swinging new-style songs and leading his own band.
If Ma is a parody of the white world’s oppression, making it dance to her economic tune, Levee personifies its victimization. He sees the musical future but can’t join it; his inspiration and his opportunity are stolen.
As Levee, Boseman, at once fierce and fragile, gives a searing performance, full of humor and heartbreak—the fact that this is Boseman’s last performance makes the character’s desolation all the more poignant. “God ain’t never listened to no nigger’s prayers,” Levee rages in his doom, berating the piety of Cutler (Colman Domingo), the trombone player. “God takes a nigger’s prayers and throws them in the garbage…. Jesus don’t love you, nigger! Jesus hate your black ass. Come talking that shit to me. Talking about burning in hell! God can kiss my ass.”
The film is an important project, produced by Denzel Washington and adapted by the actor and playwright Ruben Santiago-Hudson, two solid senders of Wilson’s particular eloquence, a luxuriant mix of vernacular and “near-choral transport,” as Henry Louis Gates Jr. described it.
As Levee, Boseman, at once fierce and fragile, gives a searing performance, full of humor and heartbreak—the fact that this is Boseman’s last performance makes the character’s desolation all the more poignant.
Nonetheless, by opening with a Rainey tent show and putting Rainey’s Full Diva on display before she even arrives at the recording studio, the movie tilts the drama more in the direction of a biopic than of a spectacle of the “dazed and dazzling” rapport of ordinary Black Americans to white America, which the community of musicians represents.
“I wasn’t trying to write a biography of Ma Rainey at all,” Wilson told me, adding, “Once I discovered the four guys and got them talking, I wanted to take Ma Rainey out of the play. I was more concerned with them.” The film is still powerful, and, as Wilson liked to say, “fat with substance.”
“White folks don’t understand about the blues. They hear it come out, but they don’t know how it got there,” Ma Rainey says at one point. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom marks the beginning of Wilson’s heroic undertaking to answer James Baldwin’s call for a “profound articulation of the Black Tradition.”
To a Black world, Wilson’s characters are witness to the spiritual hypocrisy of white America; to the white world, they bring news of how it is both separated and defined by the Black experience. Taken together, his plays are a kind of blues, “a wail and a whelp of joy,” he said, whose song faces America with a conundrum first raised by Baldwin: “If I am not what I’ve been told I am, then it means that you’re not what you thought you were either!”
Voice of a Nation
We revisit an interview with the late playwright, whose writing on the complexity of everyday Black lives remains unparalleled
At the age of 20, August Wilson, an aspiring poet living in a Pittsburgh boardinghouse, found a Bessie Smith record in a junk shop.
AUGUST WILSON: It was a bootleg record, “Nobody in Town Can Bake a Sweet Jelly Roll Like Mine.” It had a typewritten label, even some of the letters were missing. It struck a chord. This spoke to me in a way none of that other stuff did. Not Peggy Lee and not Hoagy Carmichael, not all of them songs from the 30s and 40s. The music, the voice, the eerie sound, I’d never heard that early version of the blues. It was just stunning. I played it over and over and over again. Then I started laughing ’cause it dawned on me that there was another record on the other side that I hadn’t listened to.
See, I’m the kind of person, rather than, like, flipping it over and immediately listening to the other side, I can’t do that, you know. If I get a letter, I’ll carry that letter around, sometimes for days. I have to find the right moment to do that. So, there was another side, but I wasn’t gonna listen to it. I wasn’t gonna use it up so quick. So I walked around the next day thinking about this side. I really began to look at the people around me differently, you know. I went back, and the other side was “If You Don’t, I Know Who Will,” which I liked better.
Daddy, I want some furs and things
Daddy, I want the diamond rings
And if you don’t, I know who will.
I started looking at the people in the rooming house different.
My landlady, good Christian woman, who loved to drink her gin. The guy who was a counterfeiter, just got out of jail. The drunkard that thought he was Billy Eckstine. The people didn’t have a silhouette; the music gave them an emotional reference. This music is the people. So if I see a value to this music, which I did instantly, then there’s a value to these people, who didn’t have any value before. I became intensely curious in their personal histories. It made them beautiful.
The blues was the Africans’ emotional response to the world in which they found themselves. Coming from a people who have an oral history, it was also a way of keeping information alive, a living history. It’s life-affirming music. Even though “My Woman Done Left Me,” life goes on. The blues, I think, is the best literature that Black America has produced. It’s not viewed as literature, but it functions as literature—it brings news, it defines you, it talks about your encounter with life.
“If you ask me, that was the singular most important thing in my development as a writer and a playwright—it was the environment of the Hill,” Wilson said of the lively Black Pittsburgh district whose jazz and art scenes earned it the sobriquet “Crossroads of the World.” Only a five-minute drive from downtown, the Hill’s square mile had its own baseball teams, nightclubs, businesses, and newspapers and its own creative legends, including Lena Horne, Erroll Garner, Billy Strayhorn, Ahmad Jamal, Earl “Fatha” Hines, Billy Eckstine, and George Benson.
A.W.: The Hill had a vibrancy and a shimmy. There were people, hundreds of people, on the sidewalk; there was life going on. Downtown, you didn’t have that shimmer and that vibrancy. But if you walk up Centre Avenue, there’s always people shouting. I was getting a ride up Centre Avenue with this guy in this convertible. I heard some gunshots, and I told him to stop the car, and I didn’t even bother to open the door. I just hopped out of the car and ran down to where the gunshots were.
And I’m like, What’s happening? And there’s this woman chasing the man around the car, and he poked his head up, and—boom!—she shot him in the face. Not only did I see it, but after the guy got shot in the face, someone grabbed her. He’s walking up the street, and I’m, like, walking right beside him, like, looking at him. You know, I wanted to see this. And he was bleeding. He asked this guy, he said, “Man, drive me to the hospital.” The guy said, “You ain’t gon get all that blood in my car.” I was right there.
The blues was the Africans’ emotional response to the world in which they found themselves.
This is going on—I remember one time, I didn’t go to bed for, like, damn near three days, because every time I’d go to bed, I felt like I was missing something. And I’d jump up, three o’clock in the morning and run out there. All kinds of life going on. It was like, Wow!
Becoming a Playwright
“What I discovered is that writing was the only thing society would allow me to do. I couldn’t have a job or be a lawyer because I didn’t do all the things necessary. What I was allowed to do was write. If they saw me over in the corner scribbling on a piece of paper, they would say, ‘That is just a nigger over in the corner scribbling on a piece of paper.’ Nobody said, ‘Hey, you can’t do that.’ So I felt free.”
A.W.: I moved from Pittsburgh on March 5, 1978, to Saint Paul, Minnesota. So I moved from a community of 55,000 Blacks to a city that had 19,000 in the whole state. In that silence, if you will, I could hear the language for the first time. I could hear the music.
Up to then, I didn’t value the way Black people talked because in Pittsburgh it’s all around you, just part of everyday life, you don’t think about it, and it’s not anything.... When I missed it, I began to hear it. I thought, Well, let me re-create it. I knew how people talked. I knew how they expressed their ideas and other things. And I always thought that you needed to create art out of something that had happened, you know? ’Cause I certainly could hear it, and then not only could I hear it but I made a decision to stop writing the other stuff I was writing. To stop trying to change Black speech, that Black speech was sufficient unto itself.
So I went to Arthur Treacher’s Fish & Chips, up the street from where I lived. And I carried my tablet. And for 10 days in a row, I stuck with it religiously. And I went up there, and I wrote Jitney. I’m writing for the first time in that language, and just letting the people talk, the way they talk in Pittsburgh at the barbershop, at Pat’s Place. Without changing it. I found that exhilarating. It felt like this is what I’ve been looking for. I was looking for something that would enable me to say anything. And I was looking for something that was mine, something that you can claim, something that you can claim as yours. And I was looking for something that would give me a larger canvas.
To stop trying to change Black speech, that Black speech was sufficient unto itself.
Coming from a people whose humanity has been consistently, and sometimes in a very profound way, denied, the struggle has always been to reclaim your moral personality, or reclaim your humanity. James Baldwin, in one of his essays, defined it as that “field of manners and ritual intercourse that will sustain a man once he’s left his father’s house.” What I wanted to do in the plays was to answer that call, to place that humanity onstage to demonstrate that it exists and that it is capable of sustaining you. That there are no ideas that cannot be contained by Black life.
At his home in Seattle, Wilson wrote standing up. Above his writing table were the words DON’T BE AFRAID. JUST PLAY THE MUSIC and TAKE IT TO THE MOON. An Everlast punching bag hung from the ceiling just behind his desk. When his writing was in full flow, Wilson was in the habit of pivoting and throwing a barrage of punches at it.
What I wanted to do in the plays was to answer that call, to place that humanity onstage to demonstrate that it exists.
A.W.: For me, writing takes a certain amount of spiritual preparation. I don’t practice any particular religion, but I consider myself a very spiritual person. I do know that I’m going on a journey in the writing of this play. And I know that I’m going to face myself, and I may uncover some aspects of myself that are not particularly pleasing. And I have to be willing to accept that. I don’t know where this is going to lead me. So I best have all the spiritual strength that I can muster, in order to make this journey. The only ritual I have is that whenever I write something, before I write something, I wash my hands. I always want to say, I approached it with clean hands. There’s no blood on my hands; there’s no dirt on my hands. And if I’m sitting in a restaurant, and I don’t have any water, and I can’t wash my hands, I’ll just do a symbolic cleansing of my hands. Then I’ll write something.
Blacks know the spiritual truth of white America. We are living examples of America’s hypocrisy. We have always placed our faith, and it’s how we survive, in America’s willingness to live up to the meaning of her creed, so as not to make a mockery of her ideals. But you find it doesn’t matter to Americans, they mock the ideals anyway. They don’t really believe, it would seem—we know white America better than white America knows us.
John Lahr is, among other things, a columnist for AIR MAIL
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is out now on Netflix