Losing Chadwick Boseman in a year that has taken so much from so many seemed — and still seems four months later — like the act of a cruel, despotic, or absent god. Not coincidentally, the abject absence of a benign, just deity runs through Tony Award-winning director George C. Wolfe’s (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Nights in Rodanthe) sublime adaptation of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, August Wilson’s 1984 Pulitzer Prize-winning play. It’s Boseman, a generational talent who passed away this past August at the age of 43, who gives incendiary voice to the Black men and women traumatized and oppressed by 400 years of racist violence and white supremacy as a struggling musician in 1927 Chicago.
Introducing the Players
Ma Rainey (a reliably magnificent Viola Davis) may be the title character and the driving force behind Wilson’s play and Wolfe’s adaptation, but it’s Boseman’s character, Levee Brown, a trumpet player, composer, and dreamer who repeatedly takes centre stage. Filled with self-assurance bordering on the kind of hubris that dramatic tragedies inevitably punish, Levee continually clashes with Rainey over the direction of the band. While the owner of a music recording studio, Mel Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne), proves amenable to Levee’s arrangement of the title track, it’s the imperious Rainey who unsurprisingly asserts dominance and makes the final call — much to Levee’s displeasure and the deliberate indifference of Levee’s bandmates, Cutler (Colman Domingo), Rainey’s trombone player and bandleader, Toledo (Glynn Turman), the band’s piano player, and the aptly named Slow Drag (Michael Potts), the bassist.
As the oft-called “Mother of the Blues,” Rainey has more relative freedom than the average Black man or woman in 1920s Chicago. She’s well aware of the perks that accrue from her position, up to and including intentionally treating Sturdyvant and her manager, Irvin (Jeremy Shamos), practically as servants—ever willing to do her bidding regardless of any temporary humiliation they might have to suffer as a result. Even her temperamental outbursts are calibrated to exert maximum control in a limited setting or space. She’s just as keenly aware that without her singular singing voice, commodified and sold to the highest (white) bidder, she would be nothing or less than nothing in a repressive, racist society — dismissed and ignored at best, mistreated and abused at worst.
A Note-Perfect Adaptation of Wilson’s Play
Working from Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s note-perfect adaptation of Wilson’s play, Wolfe contrasts Levee’s reality-denying idealism against Rainey’s hard-edged pragmatism. Unsurprisingly, that sets Levee and Rainey, along with everything they represent, on a tragic collision course that gives Wilson’s play and Wolfe’s adaptation the driving impetus for a series of increasingly fraught confrontations, each one leaving Boseman’s Levee in a losing position. In between those confrontations, Levee and the other band members wait (and wait) for Ma Rainey’s arrival in the studio’s basement-level rehearsal space, sparking a series of Levee-centred revelations that strip his character of emotional armour, the emotional armour that protects him against a world that’s physically, psychically, and emotionally scarred him.
It’s in those moments of revelation, each one more devastating than the last, that Wilson’s play and Wolfe’s adaptation lays bare one of the central themes behind Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the absence of a just, benevolent god or perhaps, the presence of a malevolent, unjust one that’s ratified the pain and anguish of so many Black Americans for so long. For Cutler, a life without god isn’t worth living, leading not unexpectedly to a physical confrontation between the soon-to-be ex-band-members. For Levee, a lifetime of experiences in a racist, oppressive society has taught him that only wealth, power, and status count as markers of success — the same relative wealth, power, and status Ma Rainey temporarily enjoys and Levee covets.
An American Tragedy
Ultimately, the tragedy at the centre of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom lies in Levee’s misdirected expression of a lifetime of frustration and mistreatment into rage-fuelled violence and his inability to overcome or transcend a social, cultural, and political system founded on white supremacy. And in Boseman’s last, great performance, Levee emerges as a foundational, tragic, and most importantly, American figure. He is both a symbol and embodiment of a racist past, a racist present, and all too likely, a racist future that fails to live up to the Platonic ideals of a fully participatory American democracy.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is now available to stream via Netflix.