August Wilson’s Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is set in the 1920s. It premiered in 1984. And yet, as the new film adaptation arrives on Netflix December 18, the conversations it elicits are very much 2020 conversations.
“Talk about the struggle for respect—for the humanity of Black people. We’re talking about the appropriation of someone else’s art,” says Michael Potts, who takes on the role of Slow Drag, Rainey's bass player. The majority of the film, like the play, takes place in a recording studio as the title blues star lays down an album with her band. It’s their talent, but in the hands of white producers.
Potts says that resonance is heightened in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, but “it is a continuum. It hasn’t ended… It’s what August Wilson has tackled through [his] Century Cycle.”
Potts and many of his co-stars are no strangers to dissecting Wilson’s text in a theatrical light. Davis won a Tony and an Oscar for her work in Fences; stage and screen veteran Colman Domingo has appeared in Fences and directed Seven Guitars regionally. While Domingo plays band leader and saxophonist Cutler, at the helm of the movie is director and theatre titan George C. Wolfe, who led the cast through a legitimate rehearsal period.
“You usually don’t get that time,” Domingo says. “You’re not playing for the Belasco [Theatre]. How can you do this work that is essentially created for the stage and boil it down to the intimacy of just being in the small room? Your characters still have their size and language that crackles and pops and is supposed to go to a thousand-seat house, but the intimacy is required… Whose better hands to be carving this than George C. Wolfe, who is a master of African-American thought and culture?”
As the on-screen band reflects on their time dong that work with Wolfe, their quartet is, tragically, a trio, with the death of Chadwick Boseman. Boseman plays the hot-tempered Levee in what is his final film credit. Glynn Turman, as pianist Toledo, shares the screen with Boseman in the movie’s tense climax, but cherishes what was anything but a tense relationship with the late actor.
“We got to know him as a young man, to see his whimsicalness and the fun he had,” Turman notes. “I remember when he and [producer] Denzel [Washington] sparred at one point. Denzel is a big boxing fan, and Chadwick was the same.”
Catch Potts, Domingo, and Turman in the full interview above.