—Chris Joseph Stancato
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Established in 1927, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is the third play in the ‘Pittsburgh Cycle.’ This installment takes place in a Chicago recording studio. August Wilson’s natural nexus to blues music is at its peak in this play. The migration of Black people, blues music and performers from the Deep South during the 1920s to the Midwest, like Chicago and St. Louis; and in the North, like Pittsburgh, began to change the geography. As exquisitely explained in The Play at the beginning of the book, Chicago in the 1920s was a rough city with the very rich and the very poor: gangsters, roughhouses, and dandies. The synopsis of The Play is to sew the music, in particular, the blues from the South to East St. Louis. Wilson’s play is a confluence of men, music, a strong woman, motives, and most importantly, at the forefront of the play, the subject matter of race. It is Black America dealing with the obvious and indirect manner of blatant discrimination. It is Black America dealing with their individual battles about promises from white America, promises that are deliberately pushed to another prolonged period of marginalization.
“In that play (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) he literally wrote the characters as instruments,” said Harry J. Elam Ph.D. In the movie, Viola Davis plays Ma Rainey as an instrument of determination. Davis was the best choice for this role. She, like many of the actors in the movie, had performed in Wilson’s plays on stage and most recently with Denzel Washington in Fences. Washington is the producer for this film and it is remarkably tight with the play. Rarely does a review offer a comparison from a book to a movie. Yet the adaption is on cue.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is remarkable because Wilson places you in the studio, a small world, a challenging world. Challenges in a capsule of characters: Sturdyvant (Mel) and Irvin who is Ma Rainey’s manager, are the two white men in control of the process, to a certain extent. Cutler, the leader of the band of the Black performers, plays the guitar and trombone. Cutler balances the recordings and the emotions, the best he can. Toledo, the piano player, is the only one in the band who knows how to read, and explanations of what is right and wrong is more predicated because of his knowledge. Levee plays the trumpet and is the youngest in the band. He is also a stubborn young man with little faith in the justice of Black people’s outcome. Levee is tainted by a past that entailed his mother being raped by white men.
Ma Rainey about the blues: “Life’s way of talking, you don’t sing to feel better—you sing ‘cause that’s the way of understanding life.”
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is now playing at the Savor Cinema in Fort Lauderdale and Cinema Paradiso in Hollywood. Before I continue with my review about this film adaption of the play, I want to briefly state a more important issue about the two aforementioned independent theatres: Safety protocols are in place for you and your family and friends during this period of the pandemic to attend. Both theatres have taken every measure to make you feel comfortable. Please remember, these theatres are local businesses that have addressed the needs and wants for patrons to enjoy the wonderful world of cinema. “The Broward County Film Society presents the annual Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival and runs [these] two arthouse theaters playing the best in independent, foreign, and local films year-round.” The Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival has provided our community, and visitors alike, with many choices to see a variety of films: Drive-In Cinema to their FLIFF’s Movies-On-Demand.
Ma Rainey, the stout blues singer is the star, and she knows it. She also aware that her voice and songs are what is making everyone money. For that fact, she is relentless with Irvin and Cutler about the convenience and creative process. Ma Rainey is pivotal, in subtle dialogue with Cutler, because she understands the relation she has with Irvin is not personal, it’s only about the power she can wield, and she does wield it to secure that no injustice will come her way.
The dialogue and action in the play has many serious overtones, sometimes light, and, at times, humorous. The tumultuous conclusion includes an irreverence and reverence to God that leaves the recording studio, once with music, mute.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom play by August Wilson is a historical recording, a timeless recording. Wilson places you in the studio with the bluesy songs and conditions of what is right and wrong. “Blues is the best literature that we as black Americans have.” August Wilson said. The blues, the spiritual songs, rooted meanings of stories that are shared, much like August Wilson’s narrative to tell a story. The world is small, just like the studio, yet complete with the reality of the cruel actions converging on people because of their color.
This review is part of The Three Months of August written by Chris Joseph Stancato. The Three Months of August entails August Wilson’s ten plays also known as the “Pittsburgh Cycle.”
Cinema Paradiso Hollywood: Intimate 82-seat venue in the heart of downtown Hollywood’s Arts & Entertainment district, within walking distance of 87 restaurants representing more than 40 countries.
Savor Cinema Fort Lauderdale: Unique, 200+ seat theatre in a converted church with plush velvet seats, located just across the New River from downtown Fort Lauderdale and minutes from trendy Las Olas Boulevard.