(Maya Phillips’s article appeared in The New York Times, 12/4/2020; via Pam Green. To accompany this essay, the Baltimore-based artist Jerrell Gibbs painted “Portrait of August Wilson” (2020), exclusively for T.Credit…Courtesy of Mariane Ibrahim. Photo by Joseph Hyde.)
Perhaps no playwright has asserted the richness and complexity of everyday Black lives and language so deeply. Now, two screen projects affirm his legacy for new audiences
IN THE WOODS of Barnesville, Ga., two Black men are running, barely visible in the dusk. There are crickets chirping, dogs barking in the distance and, more immediately, the urgent pants of their breath. This seems to be a familiar horror, but the men aren’t being chased; they’re heading toward a tent. Inside, Ma Rainey — played by Viola Davis, her lips painted burgundy, eyelids smoked with black, cheeks stained merlot — beckons the audience in a royal blue dress. “Daddy, daddy, please come home to me,” she sings, shimmying in the heat.
“Anytime you see two Black people running in the South, you think the Klan’s somewhere, but, no, they’re not running from something. They’re running to something — to this woman whose voice is telling their story,” says George C. Wolfe, the director of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” the Netflix film version of August Wilson’s beloved play, which debuts this month. The scene feels appropriate for the opening of a Wilson adaptation: One of the most acclaimed Black playwrights in America, he spent more than three decades telling the story of Black America with pride and verve, with language that beckoned like Ma’s voice in that tent.
The play, first produced in 1984 at Yale Repertory Theater in New Haven, Conn., is a fictionalized account of a famous blues singer, Gertrude (Ma) Rainey, who is in Chicago with her band in the 1920s to record a few songs. Ma’s musicians rehearse in a back room, or at least talk about rehearsing: There’s the sensible Cutler (played in the film by Colman Domingo), the laggard Slow Drag (Michael Potts), the thoughtful Toledo (Glynn Turman) and Levee (Chadwick Boseman, who died in August, in his final film role), a young and impetuous trumpet player with an idea for what a new sound might be. Ma finds herself at odds with Levee, as she does with her controlling white agent and the white studio owner, both of whom she knows are exploiting her. That’s the conflict, but much of the play’s pleasure is its dialogue: the characters gabbing, joking and arguing. Accordingly, the pith of the show is Ma’s voice — not just her husky murmur but the sound of a Black artist singing her story to and for her community. “White folks don’t understand about the blues. They hear it come out, but they don’t know how it got there,” Ma says in the play. “They don’t understand that’s life’s way of talking.”