Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

By Joanna Langfield

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

This adaptation of the August Wilson drama is revelatory, beautifully staged as well as acted and almost perfect. Yes, I said almost.

Based on the true story of a legendary, but historically underappreciated blues singer, we spend most of the film in two rooms, as Ma and her all male band lay down a recording for their all white producers. Ma is as smart as she is talented. She knows who she can trust and who she can play. And she knows how to play her own, albeit socially limited, power. I loved watching Viola Davis land each and every moment of Ma’s ma-ness. This is a great performance of a woman who should be reckoned with, even now, some 100 years after it was due.

But while Ma knows what she knows, the men who support her know their place in her universe. Most have figured out how to play their parts, literally and figuratively. But one, young Levee, he’s a man who’s got a plan. He doesn’t need this gig, he’s working on his own future, where he writes his own music, modernizes some classics and puts them all out with his own band. And while he doesn’t mind stepping on a few toes to get there, he cannot face anyone stepping on his.

Chadwick Boseman seems to vibrate with the complexities of Levee. Wired tight, Boseman is visibly thin and intent on leaving nothing behind. His work, as it has always been, is compelling and layered. And here, because of the arc of the character, as well as the actor’s shockingly untimely death, his performance is heartbreaking.

If I were King, or, in this case, Ma, I might have ruled that the drama begin with, or at least allow for a few more quiet moments, not just to give everybody a second to catch their breath, but to let the climax resonate even louder. But George C. Wolfe has staged everything else with great love and Branford Marsalis’s music is grand. Attention must and happily is, paid to a stunning theater piece that speaks to our history as well as our lives, even now.