Accolades continue to pour in about the superb quality of the newly released film version of playwright August Wilson’s masterful “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” which debuted last weekend on Netflix.
And while the cast, director and producers collectively achieved unparalleled heights in bringing Wilson’s play to the screen, the real star of the show remains the words, carefully employed by the playwright in describing the challenges faced and inequities experienced by Blacks in America during the 1920s.
During this writer’s formative years as a journalist in Chicago, I would have the opportunity to hear Wilson describe his craft and mission as he developed his Century Cycle – a series of 10 plays that chart the Black experience throughout the 20th century. Each play is set in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, the city of Wilson’s birth, except “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” which is set in Chicago.
Sitting at the feet of Wilson, who died in October 2005 from cancer, remains one of the highlights of my career. Additionally, I have seen the complete Century Cycle, some on multiple occasions, performed on stages in cities which include Chicago, Atlanta, Miami and Washington, D.C.
However, unlike witnessing the brilliant interpretations of Wilson’s work as presented by some of America’s most talented actors, the film version, through the use of technology, also provided captions that allowed this writer to focus on the words in ways I had never experienced before.
On Saturday, Dec. 19, the August Wilson Society (AWS), an organization dedicated to commemorating Wilson’s legacy, hosted a “Jam Session” that revealed details about the work, the cast and Wilson’s life during a virtual presentation.
The president of AWS, Dr. Sandra G. Shannon, served as moderator for the Jam Session which featured Phylicia Rashad, Colman Domingo, Glynn Turman, Ebony Jo-Ann and other cast members or former actors called upon to bring Wilson’s work to the stage.
Shannon, an August Wilson scholar, author and retired professor emerita of Howard University – the venue which serves as the home of the Society – said it has long been her mission to make both the Academy and the world cognizant of Wilson’s works in ways leading to the level of respect given to the iconic playwright William Shakespeare.
“I began to write about and publish on Wilson in the late 1980s when most of the world was still unaware of him as a force among playwrights,” Shannon said. “About the same time, ‘Ma Rainey’ came on the scene. August and I were both beginning our missions in life. But as a scholar in the Department of English and African-American Literature, particularly drama, I was determined to bring his brilliance to the attention of the Academy.”
“After his death, I felt like the rug had been pulled from under me. I felt the need to establish a lasting tribute to this playwright who had meant so much to me and my scholarship. Today and despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the AWS continues to re-main busy – busier than some might suspect,” she said.
But what does a play about Black life in the 20s have to say about the African-American experience 100 years later? Shannon was quick to respond.
“Young people can really relate to this play and its theme – an exploration of what happens when we’re willing to put our culture up for sale and the bad things that happen with that decision,” she said.
“Ma embodies strength, especially the power of the Black woman. She reminds us that for Blacks, the blues serve as a way of living and breathing. Whites enjoy the music but cannot understand the message that’s inherent with the blues. It’s a choice Blacks must make between embracing America’s thirst for capitalism or remaining forgoing the visible benefits of capitalism in order to remain true to our cultural heritage.”
“Many do not realize that this play propelled August Wilson into joining the canon of America’s major playwrights. It’s the goal of the AWS to safeguard the rich narrative of the African-American past which Wilson bequeathed to us in the form of his cycle of plays that chronicle the stories of African Americans from 1907 to 1997,” said Shannon while reflecting on the Society’s ongoing mission to which it has remained committed since its founding on the campus of Howard University in 2006.
The incomparable actor Chadwick Boseman, who died earlier this year from cancer, contributed his talents to this film – the last in which he would appear prior to his death.
Award-winning actors Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, the film’s producer and lead actress, respectively, reflected on Boseman’s performance.
“This was Chadwick’s most extraordinary performance in an extraordinary role and it represents what happens when an actor sacrifices himself totally to the role,” Davis said. “You have to be courageous and leave yourself behind. You have to be more concerned about servicing the writer and the role than being seen as a superstar. Chadwick was great because he was one of a rare few who was committed to the entire craft of acting.”
“I’m fortunate to be able to bring this work to film, especially for those who haven’t seen August Wilson’s work before,” Washington said. “It’s an opportunity and privilege to shepherd this material. And no matter who’s among the cast, the true power is in the spoken word.”