It’s hard not to watch “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” the vibrant adaptation of August Wilson’s play of the same name, now streaming on Netflix, without feeling a sense of loss. It’s Chadwick Boseman’s last performance and the life he brings to the role of ambitious trumpet player Levee acts as a poignant reminder of a career cut tragically short.
Set in the roaring 1920’s Chicago, Viola Davis plays the titular character, a real-life musical trailblazer known as “Mother of the Blues.” On a sweltering day in a dank basement recording studio, the band, pianist Toledo (Glynn Turman), trombonist Cutler (Colman Domingo), and string bassist Slow Drag (Michael Potts) and Levee, rehearse as they wait for the fashionably late Ma to arrive.
The heat, claustrophobia, frayed egos and twitchy Levee’s insistence on changing tried-and-true musical arrangements, fuel a war of words and wills as they attempt to put Ma’s signature “Black Bottom” song to disc.
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” theatrical roots are very much on display in director George C. Wolfe (a five-time Tony winner) and screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s adaptation. The presentation is energetic but simple; a showcase for the performances. Like bandleader Cutler says, “a-one, a-two, a-you know what to do.”
And they sure do. The core cast is uniformly excellent.
Domingo is understated but powerful as the bandleader, heading off interpersonal crisis with a few well-chosen words. Turman, recently seen as the stately Doctor Senator, consigliere to Chris Rock’s crime boss, on “Fargo,” is the sage of the group, gives Toledo’s monologues gravitas as he speaks of racial pride and personal sovereignty.
Davis is flamboyant, a diva who uses her demands to maintain control over her band and respect from her white producers (Jeremy Shamos and Jonny Coyne). “They don’t care nothin’ about me,” she says. “All they want is my voice. I learned that and they are going to treat me the way I want to be treated no matter how much it hurts them.” It’s a bravura performance that’s almost as loud and proud as the garish make Ma has slathered on her face.
Ma Rainey’s name may be on the marquee but the most memorable character is Boseman’s Levee. Ambitious, he wants to leave behind the sideman gigs and form his own band, Levee Green and His Foot Stompers, but his bluster hides a deep well of pain that overflows during the steamy afternoon recording session. Levee is a tragic character, a classically flawed man straining against the weight of personal trauma, hoping that his talent will bring him the respect he needs to survive. The distressing effects of racial discrimination are written large on Boseman’s expressive face, informing every twist and turn in his character’s journey. It’s a skillful and heartbreaking performance that doesn’t just hint at his great talent, but lays it bare. It’s the kind of performance, filled with fury and frustration, that makes you hungry for more. Sadly, it’s his swan song.
Although set in the 1920s and written in the 1980s, the ideas and the anger in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” feels of the moment and indispensable. The dialogue crackles and the context resonates because Wilson’s source material has not only stood the test of time, but transcends it.