Written by Lavinia Hart, Lakewood.
In Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, a newly released film streaming on NETFLIX, we meet the infamous chanteuse of the Blues of the 1920’s, Gertrude “Ma” Rainey and the take members of her band. Perhaps the most transformative actress in her field, Davis’s Ma Rainey explodes on the screen with a breath-taking range of emotion and nuanced manipulation. By sheer force of stage presence and a vocabulary of devilish indignation, Ms. Davis defies even the boldest of her enemies, including an extraordinarily talented young trumpeter who wants to change the sound of his people’s music to embrace orchestrated swing and jazz. We see what it costs her to launch her authoritative onslaughts when she seeks out moments of silence. She needs these silent moments to regroup her warring spirit. Keen camera work captures the impact of each event by revealing the truth in what is unspoken.
The film is full of dynamic strokes that show the clash of Ma’s expansive, soulful followers in the south versus the cold shoulders of Chicago mercenaries when she arrives to record songs for a white owned studio. An even more painful battle is exposed between Ma’s devotion to the “Blues” and Levee’s dream to deliver the new sound of “Swing”. He laces his music with dynamic riffs and is quickly shut down by Ma who won’t allow her creative ground to be less than truth-telling songs about facing life square on – the bad with the good. Levee cries out to anyone who will listen to his passionate improvisations “It’s what the people want!” We understand both points of view and go to the depths of desperation with Ma and Levee as they face the impenetrable wall of white producers who will take every opportunity to gain “permission of use” and then release or alter the music as their own property.
The film began as a play by the Pulitzer prize winning author August Wilson. The adaptation to film was brought about by the considerable talents of executive producer, Denzel Washington; director George C. Wolfe; and screen-writer Ruben Santiago-Hudson. All three are experienced with August Wilson’s themes and styles. They honor him with this production. When asked about the success of the film, Ruben says “Marry your project with people you love and respect and the off-spring will look like it’s parents.” In this case the progeny is a phenomenon of passion and rebellion in a despicable environment. Along with Ms. Davis are an incredibly strong cast including the unforgettable Chadwick Boseman as Levee; Glynn Turman as Toledo; Coleman Domingo as Cutler; Michael Potts as Slow Drag; Taylour Paige as Dussie Mae; Dusan Brown as Sylvester; and Jonny Coyne as Sturdyvant, Ma’s manager.
America’s most powerful, lyrical, and prolific writer of plays in the 20th Century, August Wilson dreamed of writing a play for every decade with circumstances that spoke to the heart of Black American life – keeping track of how life got better or worse; or how it stayed the same. He finished his 10th play in the cycle just prior to his death in 2005.
August Wilson loved storytelling. As a youth, he would spend Saturdays at a neighborhood barbershop in Pittsburgh, listening to the men talk about their lives. The stories sounded like parables. He loved the musicality of their emphatic expressions. Wilson’s writing style grew to incorporate arias that move the plot forward – monologues that are at times several pages long, flow from the heart of characters in his plays. One wonders how the actor can build such a range of emotions in one speech. It feels like opera, only it’s just guys talking.
August Wilson takes us to the edge of endurance with sorrow, rage, stoicism and revelation of wounds that may never heal. He gives each character a generous voice to pass on what they know. We all do it in real life. We love the stories of our families that tell of their courage and foibles. And when you are viewing a film version, or a live theatre performance of one of Mr. Wilson’s plays, you find yourself in the hands of a master story teller.
You can read more information about the film from IMDB as well as watch the trailer – imdb.com/video/vi1912193305
I directed Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom in Detroit, 1987. I had a brilliant young music director whose talent was inspired by Motown musicians and from generations gone by. Her name is Miche Braden. Supported by a life-long pursuit of studying her musical roots, Miche brings a deep, well- researched understanding of the musical dynamics of any play she directs or in which she performs. She brought together the cast for Ma’s band from Detroit’s royalty of music-makers. “Funk Brother’s” leader Earl Van Dyke as Toledo on piano; Barry Gordy’s Road Manager/Studio Musician Thomas Beans Bowles as Cutler; Don Mayberry on bass (local professional musician, including the Detroit Symphony Orchestra); and Rayse Biggs as Levee, made up Ma’s band. During rehearsal Earl said he accepted the part because he figured if Dexter Gordon could star in a movie (‘Round Midnight), he could handle being in a stage play. He was right about that! Rayse was born to play Levee – a jokester and, like the rest of the Detroit musicians in Ma’s band, he too is a world class musician, touring with Was Not Was soon after the play closed. He won The Detroit Free Press Award for best actor of the season. It became a dream cast when LaVerna Mason, a lusty singer from the world of Baptist Choral Singers, accepted the role of Ma. Miche also brought in the revered Lloyd Story, one of Motown’s choreographers. He taught Ma the moves that went with the Black Bottom song and dance. Every performance of Ma’s signature song was like being transported to 1927. I began rehearsals with this remarkable crew 2 months earlier than the union actors of the cast. I too received an award from the Free Press for Best Director. We all brought our best game – Mr. Wilson’s plays demand it.
I learned lessons about life from the band as we rehearsed. The script called for metal lockers in the basement for the musicians. Beans Bowles told me that he wouldn’t put his things in a locker. He’d fold his coat and sit on it while they were rehearsing. When I asked him about it, he said not much had changed since the 20’s in terms of management going back on agreements or musicians being robbed of their pay after it’s given out. “A musician just wants to put on his coat and get out while the getting’s good.”
The Detroit musicians recounted their stories of racism during the Motown tours. Like the film’s band members, the Detroit quartet had a sense of humor that was tough and unguarded. They came up with ad libs that often topped August Wilson’s humor. Like jazz – sometimes their improvised calls were the funniest tension relievers of the evening. Theatre folks are trained to stick to the script, but I suspected that August Wilson would approve of their occasional comments because they contributed such believability to their roles. They had lived the life. The play was a hit. Local producers enticed the Shubert Foundation to take a look at the production for a mid-west tour. Mr. Wilson had to give his approval. I told the band we should probably lose the ad libs on the night of his attendance. They agreed as long as I let them keep their favorites. “OK”, I told them “Keep these 3.” But they couldn’t help themselves. They topped their scripted tiffs by using most of their ad libs. The audience loved it and was moved by the story. This public had witnessed the aftermath of Barry Gordy moving to Los Angeles. Many Motown musicians did not receive royalties for their collaborations on hit records. The audience was with their heroes as they faced off against Mr. Sturdyvant. Following the performance, I met with August Wilson. The man I revered as America’s greatest playwright looked at me and said “I scarcely recognized my play.” That was as far as the conversation went. No mid-west tour. In retrospect, I understand. That play was his music and he didn’t need anyone to change anything around. It was Ma’s theme. Lesson learned.
All four of the film’s band members learned to play their instruments convincingly to the music which was dubbed. This comes under the umbrella of the actor’s motto “fake it till you make it” and “make it” they do! Coleman Domingo (Cutler) says Chadwick Boseman was rarely seen on set without his trumpet in hand. He made the fingering on the trumpet second nature. It’s clear the cast gave their all to honoring Ma’s music. I wish August Wilson was still around so he could write a play for 2020. It’s been quite a year and this play written about events that happened 100 years ago, yet it speaks to our times quite eloquently.
I’m grateful the film is airing. Now that I’ve moved home to Lakewood after 40 years of making theatre in Detroit, it’s a privilege to review the cinematic release of MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM and look back on our theatre production in Detroit. I enjoyed reviewing the Lakewood Playhouse’s production of Pipi Longstocking last season. We need program’s like theirs to bring up our young ones in the arts, like Miche was raised by the Motown musicians.
One moment that didn’t make the cut when the film was edited, closes the first act of the play. Levee has just told the story of his mother’s plight and father’s demise. After a stunned silence, Toledo makes the stride piano thunder and the old man cries out the lyrics “If I had my way, if I had my way, if I had my way, I would tear this old building down.” The song is in reference to the Old Testament’s Samson, blind, tearing down the temple of his enemies. Samson dies in the effort. Toledo would give anything for these crimes not to have happened to Levee as a boy of 8. But he can only offer consolation and understanding through his stride piano and agonized vocal release. It is the Blues. August Wilson’s play is clear about how painful it is to endure and go forward in spite of crushing adversity.