The second half of this blog will contain spoilers.
Ma Rainy’s Black Bottom was part of a series of ten plays written by August Wilson. Written in 1982, this story takes place in Chicago in early 1927. The setting was a day in the life of Ma Rainy and her band’s recording session. I was a fan of August Wilson, before I knew who he was. I was first introduced to his writings, in high school in the early 90’s when I saw Piano Lessons. I remember being excited being on Broadway, sitting in the small theater, excited with anticipation to see a play that I had only seen acted out in my imagination. I had voices for each character in my head. Doaker sounded like Decan James at my Baptist church. Voice rich, deep and warm. While Berniece had a rhythm to it, inviting but stern. At the close of the production, I stood up proud and thoroughly satisfied, clapping until my hands stung. I forgotten how much I loved theater. After Piano Lessons, there was Fences, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, and Two Trains Running. August Wilson’s ability to tell stories that was so familiar. It was the stories of my grandparents, aunts, uncles, their friends, and still so current.
When Netflix’s first announced Ma Rainy’s Black Bottom, I admit I was first excited because it was staring Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman. Since finishing undergrad, I haven’t had time to indulge in theater. So I will admit that it didn’t click that this was based on August Wilson’s play. Because 2020 has been a year of streaming movies, binge watching series, and watching endless hours of content on YouTube, I hadn’t done my normal research prior to watching the movie. I went in assuming like many this was a biopic about Blue’s singer Ma Rainy. Watching the first scene with Levee (Chadwick Boseman), Cutler (Colman Domingo), Toledo (Glynn Turman), and Slow Drag (Michael Potts) I began to realize this movie might be based off a play. Normally at this point I would have stopped and did a quick IMDb search, but I was so pulled in I just surrendered to the movie. Each scene, each monolog built on each other. Each actor melted into the person they were portraying. Viola Davis consumed by Ma Rainy’s big personality. Chadwick was as eager, immature, and pained as one could imagine Levee could have been written by Mr. Wilson. Truman and Domingo both gave outstanding performances, but because they each shared scenes with Boseman, he eclipsed them. I read that August Wilson did not get treatment for his cancer, because he didn’t want to compromise his writing. He was working on Radio Golf and finished it right before his death. Knowing this I couldn’t help to think if Chadwick Boseman made the same choice. He poured all his talent into Lavee. It was hard not to appreciate watching his last performance with simple awe.
When Levee first entered into the rehearsal room, he noticed a door. He claimed that the door was not there before. Cutler provided livavity and was dismissive, stating the door was always there, offering maybe Levee was thinking of a different rehearsal space. Levee dismissed that notion and throughout the movie, he kept going to that door, attempting to open it. In one of his final scenes, he was finally able to pull the jammed door open, only to find it was a dead end. The door was a metaphor for limitations put on black people. The backdrop of Ma Rainy’s Black Bottom was the Great Migration of Blacks migrating from the Jim Crow South to the North, with hopes of freedom, fair wages to provide for their families, education, and prosperity. Only to discover while things looked different, the limitations were still there. They would still have to work twice as hard for less and for the first time had to compete for low wage jobs. Our ancestors went from building the economic foundation of the South through algaculture to solidifying of the economic structure of the country through the industrial revolution.