I meant to mention our viewing of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom on Netflix. We unsubscribed from Netflix a couple of years ago, maybe three, when it became evident that changes on its board might have effects on its content. We missed a couple of seasons of Orange is the New Black and Black Mirror, and the latest Dave Chapelle. But for August Wilson, I am back for one month.
It was impossible to resist, having experienced the magic of George C Wolf’s stage direction in The Iceman Cometh, the screenwriting wizardry of Ruben Santiago-Hudson, whose production of Jitney we had recently seen at Arena Stage, and the overall production artistry of Denzel Washington. Washington is committed to bringing all ten plays of the American Century Cycle to the screen (one can only imagine what he will do with Joe Turner, or Seven Guitars, my two favorites in the cycle).
The screen version was slightly compressed but excellently done. Many of the lines of my favorite character in the play, Toledo, were left on the cutting board. Toledo, performed by the great actor Glynn Turman, so impressed me that I wrote a sonnet featuring him during our last session of the Cycle. May I share it with you here?
Lockdown sonnet #12
I just listened to the new Bob Dylan drop.
Some kind of weird incantation –
A forced repetition, for a hypnotic effect,
a magic ritual in an ancient oral tradition.
Also, a shout out to the musical ancestors,
Invoking each of the gods by name.
An African conceptualization is what Toledo
would call it. Oh, you don’t know Toledo?
How could you? He was Ma Rainey’s piano player.
Ain’t never been the same fool twice. Don’t worry,
You’ll see it on Netflix when it comes out.
A piano lesson disguises the real drama.
Old Bob gives the devil his due. Play that funky
music white boy. Spell it with a K in B flat.
All the attention is on Viola Davis, who plays Ma Rainey, and Chadwick Boseman, who plays the brash trumpeteer, Levee. Davis is at the top of her game, a respectable top considering the Academy and Tony awards to her credit. Boseman, who is pretty much the star of the show, gives an Academy Award worthy performance in his final stage appearance (Boseman died last year after a lengthy battle with cancer). In fact, I am not alone in saying that the play was much more about Levee than about Ma Rainey, but, keeping it real, Ma Rainey actually existed, while at best, Levee, a fictional character, represents a composite of people who lived and performed during the same era (Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton).
Here is the true kicker. The best review of the film I have seen so far appears in, of all places, Good Housekeeping. That is about as good as it gets in modern day America!
Alternatively, and as Troy Maxsom from Fences would say, “you gotta take the crookeds with the straights,” here is a not so complimentary review from the right of center, National Review, “The Fiasco of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”
And here is Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s film adaptation screenplay.