'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom' Shines A Light On August Wilson's Vision The late August Wilson's first Broadway hit, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, has been adapted for the screen, starring Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman in his final film role.
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'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom' Shines A Light On August Wilson's Vision

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'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom' Shines A Light On August Wilson's Vision

'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom' Shines A Light On August Wilson's Vision

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The film adaptation of "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" premieres today on Netflix. It was the late August Wilson's first Broadway hit and a preamble to his cycle of award-winning plays about the African American experience across the 20th century. Tom Vitale talked with the author when the play premiered.

TOM VITALE, BYLINE: August Wilson was a little-known poet when "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" opened at the Yale Repertory Theatre in the spring of 1984. Sitting in the theater, Wilson told me the story came to him one day when he was listening to a recording of Ma Rainey singing the title song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "'MA' RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM")

MA RAINEY: (Singing) All the boys in the neighborhood, they say your black bottom is really good. Come on and show me your black bottom. I want to learn that dance.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

AUGUST WILSON: I felt privileged to be listening to her sing. And I thought, how did this record get recorded? And what was the price that was paid? And I know those things are paid for in blood, sweat and tears.

VITALE: "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" takes place in a Chicago studio on the day in 1927 when the song was recorded. The Netflix adaptation preserves Wilson's dialogue with added musical numbers bookending the script. On the surface, the story is about the economic exploitation of the early Black performers. Ma Rainey is played by Viola Davis.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM")

VIOLA DAVIS: (As Ma Rainey) Soon as they get my voice down on one of them recording machines, then it's just like I'd be some whore, and they roll over and put their pants on. They ain't got no use for me then.

VITALE: Ma Rainey was called the mother of the blues, but August Wilson didn't write a biography. He said he avoided doing research, and he created fictional musicians for her band so that he could deal with larger issues. George C. Wolfe directed the film and says all the characters have come to Chicago from the South.

GEORGE C WOLFE: In the South, Black people could nurture and support themselves and their own communities. When they came north, if they wanted to achieve anything, they had to come into contact with the white power structure, and their power was, in essence, nullified.

VITALE: Ma Rainey is the title character, but the central drama belongs to a sideman in her band, the ambitious young cornetist Levee, played in the film by Chadwick Boseman in his final performance before he died of cancer this past summer.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM")

CHADWICK BOSEMAN: (As Levee) I got talent.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (As characters) Oh, boy. Come on.

BOSEMAN: (As Levee) Me and this horn, we's tight. If my daddy had-a knowed I was going to turn out like this, he would have named me Gabriel.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (As characters) Oh (laughter).

BOSEMAN: (As Levee) I'm gon' get me a band and make me some records.

VITALE: By the end of the story, Levee is lied to, cheated and broken. He says God has turned his back on him. August Wilson.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

WILSON: It's very strange that if God is white, as Christ is often portrayed - and people actually believe that - and you look around in your life and you have white men oppressing you - everywhere you look, every contact you have with white men is a negative contact - then I don't see how you can worship a God who was made in that image.

VITALE: August Wilson grew up poor in the Hill District of Pittsburgh. His father was a white baker who was mostly absent from his family of six kids. So Wilson identified with his African American mother, and he drew on his experiences for all of his plays.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

WILSON: What I do is I go inside myself. And there's a landscape there. Sometimes it's a terrifying landscape. And I start walking there. And you never know what you're going to confront. Then very ofttimes, you confront things which are frightening. And you wrestle with them and deal with them. And hopefully, at the end, you've come out with a larger something, be it truth or not, that is both illuminating even as it's blinding. And then if that happens, then you say, I've written a play.

VITALE: And it's the character of Levee who carries that story in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," says director George C. Wolfe.

WOLFE: Levee is this bright, promising future. But is the pain and the scars and the sins of the past going to keep Levee from realizing the future that he has before him? And that's America. Is America ever going to deliver on its possibilities when it is forever haunted by its unowned sins of the past?

VITALE: Wolfe says he expects "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" to strike a chord with today's audiences.

WOLFE: It would be lovely one day if it was a lovely piece of nostalgia about the difficult, complicated racial equation of 1927. But that's not going to happen for a while.

VITALE: In the half-century between when the play is set and its 1984 premiere, August Wilson said the move towards racial equality had stalled.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

WILSON: I'm not certain we're making progress. I don't believe that we can make progress in America until Blacks are allowed their cultural differences. I don't see how we can make progress until white America recognizes and accepts the fact that Black Americans are not the same as white Americans.

VITALE: August Wilson died in 2005. "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" is the first in a planned series of Wilson's plays to be adapted for Netflix.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM")

DAVIS: (As Ma Rainey) White folks don't understand about the blues. They hear it come out, but they don't know how it got there. They don't understand that that's life's way of talking. You don't sing to feel better. You sing 'cause that's a way of understanding life.

VITALE: For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "'MA' RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM")

RAINEY: (Singing) I've done showed y'all my black bottom. You ought to learn that dance.

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