George C. Wolfe: ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’

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Director, George C. Wolfe. Photo by David Lee/ Netflix.

This week on The Treatment, Elvis sits down with playwright and director George C. Wolfe. Wolfe’s newest project is as director of Netflix’s adaptation of the August Wilson play “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” His plays include “The Colored Museum” and “Jelly’s Last Jam,” and he received the Tony Award for directing “Angels in America: Millennium Approaches” and “Bring in ‘da Noise/Bring in ‘da Funk.” In their conversation, Wolfe talks about how the character of Ma Rainey played by Viola Davis uses her power in a music industry that often disempowered Black artists. And he discusses how the tension between Ma Rainey and the character Levee, played by Chadwick Boseman, partly comes from their clashing takes on the future and their differing self-awareness.


The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.

KCRW: Welcome to The Treatment, the home edition. I think one of the most fiercely awaited projects of the year is the Netflix film adaptation of "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom.” Talking to me today, is the director of that adaptation, George C. Wolfe. One of the things that's so interesting about how you staged this is that, as a play, it's dependent on entrance. We get one entrance pretty early on and then we're waiting for Ma. You give us Ma at the very beginning and Levee, the character that she comes into conflict with. They both come right away. It's really interesting because it builds a different kind of tension.

George C. Wolfe: Well, yeah, because the play, which is beautifully crafted and these monologues are so extraordinary and funny and deeply moving, and smart and all of that. But you really want to get to “Godzilla and Mothra” going at each other as soon as you possibly can because it's named “Godzilla and Mothra.” It's not "Four Band Members Sitting in a Basement Talking;” it's called "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom."  

I just did "Iceman Cometh" with Denzel Washington, and it's 45 to 50 minutes before Hickey, the main character shows up. And so I wanted to get at Ma right away, put into place the power dynamic that is going on between Levee, this young trumpet player and Ma, so that therefore, when you cut into the guys arriving, you're watching every single thing they're doing, and when Ma's name comes up, and when we see her at the colored hotel, or when they discuss her, you're invested in her already. So you're not spending all this time waiting on this character who you don't know while other people talk about her. 

KCRW: It's a really interesting choice between you and Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who did the adaptation: showing us Ma's power over an audience right away. Especially that opening staging, which is almost like watching somebody step out into an amphitheater, but also we see people sweating, we see the literal heat that Ma can generate with an audience.

Wolfe: Absolutely, and also, to me, it's a preacher and her congregation. These people love her for the gold teeth and the horsehair wig and the necklace with the gold jewels around her neck, but she is singing their story. Her voice is affirming the lives that they live. And so it's very much this connection between her in the crowd versus when we're in Chicago, we hear the crowd, but we don't see it. There's already a disassociation between the power of her Southern voice and these Black people who are in the audience, who we don't see, who are part of what she is, but are also in the process of becoming something different. They're becoming Northern Black people. So I wanted to delineate that as well, so you see the connection, and therefore, in turn, the disconnection.

KCRW: I'm so aware as an audience member watching this, that Ma is sweating; we can feel the effort. Also, she's not going to any lengths to hide who she is from anybody. She shows up for that recording session wearing that fur; she's sweating when we meet her in that first sequence. She's sweating when she's onstage with Levee because that makes it a really fleshy earthbound character, doesn't it?

Wolfe: Well, the play is set during the winter, and the Chicago winters and urban Northern winters are brutal, but the summers are even more brutal because the earth doesn't absorb the heat because the heat bounces off the concrete and into your being. So, therefore the weight of the heat, the assault of the heat magnifies everything because there is no escape from it. You're not going into an air conditioned recording studio into a basement. The heat follows you inside. It's there. 

The film takes place, save for the prologue, in one day and monumental things happen, particularly for Levee, and so anything that can magnify the intensity of that crush of time only helps. I have this image of them going into a basement with a fan that sort of works but mostly doesn't, so there is no release, they can't escape each other. They can't escape the South, and they can't escape the tension and the expectations and the power dynamics that are in play.

KCRW: You really make it about flesh here in a way that seems kind of otherworldly on stage, and you’re getting Viola Davis to do that, too. She's constantly bathed in sweat, but she's not hiding that from anybody, and she's throwing that energy off. She is unashamed about who and what she is even to the way that she gets really close to people when she talks to them, so they know exactly what she thinks, and she's not trying to hide anything.

Wolfe: Absolutely not because that's some exaggerated polite s--t, and she doesn't traffic in that. Ann Roth is so brilliant because she gave her this little fur piece, and it's one of the hottest days of the year, but Ma bought that piece, and she's gonna wear it because she thinks she looks good in it, period. End of conversation. And it doesn't matter if it makes her hotter; she looks good at it. She's bought a new car; she's gonna drive it. And so that's it. 

It is that thing that when you have no power, you either go hide off in a corner, or you grab your own version of power, and dare anybody to get in your way. And that's who she is, and that's what she's done. So when she shows up, and she's going off on the policeman, or she's going off on Irvin or Sturdyvant, she's not being a sassy Black woman. She's doing: I have as much power as you, if not more. So how are we going to solve this because I'm not backing down?

KCRW: The one time I had a chance to sit and talk with August Wilson, I thought a lot of his plays feel almost like Southern Gothics, and there's something you do to it that moves it out of that atmosphere of Southern Gothic, where it's about all these conflicting ideas that we talked about before. There's technology that basically is defeating Ma; this car isn't performing the way she wants it to, she's got to go into this studio. She's basically fighting the future in every way she can. You and Reuben really bring that to the forefront here.

Wolfe: There's the heat of the South, when Black people are working in the fields, and then there's the heat of the steel mills, when they're thrust into this place, where they're working inside of temperatures that are inhospitable to them, but also they're working at the rhythm that the machinery requires. Ma has this line: “they want to capture my voice in all them buttons and dials.” Ma sings from her heart, sings from her feelings, and the machine don't care nothing about your heart, your feelings. It just wants to get what it can get, so that it can press it and sell it and put it out to as many people as it possibly can. So the intimacy of her art is in opposition to the recording process, which is, in essence, the commodification of a culture. But that's how she's achieved another level of popularity, or in the case of Bessie Smith, how she's going to achieve an even greater level of popularity and reach a new audience. 

One of the things that Viola and I talked about very early on is, Viola mentioned that the rigor of having to fight for yourself all the time, how exhausting that is, particularly someone who spent an entire life doing that, but also the realization that you're toward the end of your career, and you're about ready to be replaced. It harkens back to that sense of machinery, a new part has come along that is Bessie Smith, which is a better model than you. It's more photogenic. It's also traveled up the East Coast, and it's been claimed by the white intellectuals of New York, so it's bringing home the intense vulnerability of being disposable.

KCRW: There is a kind of fear of the future in Southern Black culture, and we see it with Ma because that very first vignette you offer when she's with that crowd in that smaller place, as hot as it is, it's comfortable there. When she's on that stage with Levee literally competing for the spotlight, that's another piece of technology she has to fight with. I mean, that's a motif to me, that idea of somebody who's used to using her body, not her hands, but her voice and fighting technology, trying to hold onto that piece of herself whereas Levee thinks he represents the future.

Wolfe: Yes, absolutely. As far as I'm concerned, he is the future. And he has everything going for himself except information. He knows that Ma's record sales are slipping. He knows that there's a new sound going out there. We're getting ready to go from the era in which it was about the solo singers, and it's going to become about the band leaders. It's going to become about Duke Ellington and his orchestra. It's going to become about Jimmy Lunsford and his orchestra, so he knows that; he just doesn't know anything other than that. 

He's not savvy when it comes to race, race politics. He's not savvy when it comes to how ruthless and brutal the North can be, that people can smile at you, and just because they smile, don't mean they're better than somebody who's standing over you on a horse with a gun. It just means they smiling, so he doesn't have any of that savvy. The two of them actually, point of fact, need each other because Ma has a power and an understanding of how power works, and Levee has a sense of what's to come. 

One of the tragedies in the piece to me is that Ma's jealousy and, in many respects, pettiness keeps her from taking advantage of what Levee has to offer. Jelly Roll Morton was so busy trashing the people who were coming after him that he didn't take advantage of that which was coming up. Whereas Duke Ellington was able to perpetually embrace the future, embrace the new generation, and they in turn embraced and honored him. It is that thing about artists: how are you going to confront the future? Are you going to be able to adjust? Or are you going to get left behind?

KCRW: Jockeying for center stage is something you've revisited quite a few times in your work. I think about "The Wild Party" or "Topdog/Underdog," or "Caroline or Change." So often, the idea of, literally or metaphorically, hitting center stage comes to play for you, doesn't it?

Wolfe: Well, because it's the American phenomenon. If you achieve success, it is going to be a salve to solve the pain of the past. America promises that more than it promises freedom and equality. If you can hit center stage, baby, everything's going to be fine.  If I can make this thing happen to me, for me, about me, the pain that is so much larger than me, that I don't know how to wrestle to the ground, will go away, or it will be replaced by something so much better. And that is such an American belief system. And success doesn't solve anything other than success. It doesn't solve the past; it doesn't solve the pain. It just makes you feel good in the moment, until you go in and examine the history that made you and unmade you at the exact same time. How do you move forward? And that's the American question. How do we embody the future without ever confronting digging in the past, because not only is it a source of pain, but it's also a source of power. 

There's a line in my first play " The Colored Museum," when this character Topsy Washington says, "And whereas I can't live inside of yesterday's pain, I can't live without it." And that's where we are, and I think fame, success, attention, applause says, "Oh, yes, you can. Oh, yes, you can." All you got to do is get that applause; all you got to do is achieve that success. All you got to do is put a diamond in your tooth, or, Levee, have your own band or go on "American Idol" or go here or go there, and it will all go away, and it does not go away. It never goes away.

KCRW: There is, especially when you're dealing with characters of color in your pieces, the question of self-awareness, which is really the difference between Levee and Ma, that idea that you have to know who you are. And that is something that so often eludes people in work you've done and it really lends itself to this.

Wolfe: What's really interesting to me is that the other band members, Toledo, Cutler, and Slow Drag, are, in many respects, very content, to, in many respects, live in Ma's shadow because there is money to be made living in that shadow. There's a certain kind of protection to experience from living in that shadow. They have found a kind of peace, and their own kind of power, living in that shadow, and Levee views their acceptance of that as a sign of weakness, as a sign of surrender, as a sign of just accepting the crumbs of the discarded pieces of the hog that they are content with, whereas he wants it all. And so he has very little respect for them. I think he respects them as musicians, but not really, because they have made peace, and they do enjoy the fact that there is a powerful voice in Ma Rainey, who will protect and defend them and pay them and will fight the battle, so they can just show up and and play their music and be fine. But Levee, given his ambition and given his talent and given his unresolved issues, isn't willing to accept anybody's terms but his own.

KCRW: For Levee, and it really comes across here, basically having self-knowledge is somehow knowing your place, quote, unquote. And that's something he can't stomach: the idea of having a place.

Wolfe: One-hundred percent. One of the things that was very important to me, is to have somebody like Chadwick, whose intelligence permeates everything he does, who is charismatic and charming, and at the same time has the depth and the intensity and the rawness of Levee's deepest, darkest, most unresolved emotions. But Levee is the future, musically. That song that he wrote is a good song, and he's got this understanding how music works and his version of "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" crackles and pops and honors what it was while at the same time giving it this dance groove that he understands is going to be more popular. Ma also is stuck in what she does, and being stuck there, she's gonna die there. So he is an amazing artist with a hole, a very deep expansive hole inside of him.

KCRW: I hate to keep comparing it to the play, but it's what people tend to do, and I just wanted to indicate to people who are going to be watching it, the strengths that you bring to it, by shifting so many things in it: Chad's physical understanding of character, too. He almost has his chin down a little bit like he's trying to force himself to live up to this person he's talking about rather than going into rooms chest out.

Wolfe: He deeply believes in the power of his charm. That's his weapon. He is full of threats about what he's going to do. But he is extremely confident that his charm will get him into any room, and it will work. And he used that to seduce Dussie Mae. He uses that or he thinks he's using that to deal with Sturdyvant. And he believes that he will charm his way into the room, and then his talent will shine. And then once he acquires that power, then he gets to redefine his relationship with white authority.

KCRW: He's trying to basically build himself up to himself. And we can hear him as he's talking to Toledo, trying to build himself up in his own head, as he's telling Toledo, who and what he is, or who and what he thinks he is.

Wolfe: He's described as being in his 30s. I think emotionally and creatively, he's in his early 20s. And that's what you do: you own more space than you know how to occupy when you're in your 20s because part of you is going, you can't do it, you can't do it. And the other part is, you say, wait till they see what I've got. And that's your 20s. That conversation is how you make it through that decade, having that ongoing battle with yourself. And I think that's Levee: I am better than you guys, and to prove how better I am, I'm gonna keep talking about that. 

There's this really sort of brilliant moment that happens when he whips out his sheet music, which has his tune on it, he passes it to Cutler, and Cutler turns it upside down a couple of times, because he doesn't read music. And I love that moment. It's just very wonderful because he does have that skill set. Ma doesn't read music.

KCRW: I want to ask you about your conversations with Ruben about this, that you saw this really had to be about people getting close to each other physically and metaphorically, getting too close. And what happens when you get too close in a lot of ways is when things go wrong.

Wolfe: Just speaking racially in the South, there are lines of demarcation: "colored fountain," "white fountain," and the rules are very clear. Therefore you understand if you go into that room, you have no power. As long as you stay in your room, and you're Ma Rainey and you have the savvy and the knowhow, you can build your own Southern performing empire. You come North; there are no signs saying “colored” and “white.” But those lines of demarcation are just as intense. Young Black boy goes swimming in Lake Michigan; he crosses a boundary. He gets driven out into Lake Michigan and drowns, and it results in this huge racial confrontation. There are no signs, but the signs are there. And so how do you navigate where you belong and where you don't belong? 

When there are no signs, you have to read and be available to the moment and in the process of being available to the moment, somebody can kill you or beat you or destroy you. And so those are boundaries that are clear to the people who live there and unclear to people who do not live there, i.e. Levee. So when he's up there courting his vision of a friendship with Sturdyvant, he doesn't know how dangerous that is. When he's flirting with Dussie Mae, he's thinking only about what he wants. He's not thinking about the fact that's his boss's girlfriend. So he's willing to cross those boundaries, because there is a bounty, if you will, on the other side. And he does it without any awareness that those boundaries exist. 

The guys are arguing with him that he's going behind Ma's back to get these two white men to agree to his arrangement of "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom." By virtue of doing that, he's violating and exposing and diminishing Ma's power to do so. He's willing to engage in those relationships, because he thinks that's how he's going to get the desired result because he's moving into a landscape where he doesn't know any of the rules, but he believes he's smart enough and savvy enough to pull it off.

KCRW: It's the thing we've been talking about, which is about that sort of terrible danger, especially in that time, being a person of color without self awareness. We go back to "The Colored Museum," there are characters, talking about, in fact, parodying that idea of being too self aware. Are you an archetype or stereotype? How fine that line is; this awareness really permeates the way you think about material.

Wolfe: It's that dance because I was part of that generation that was trained to invade white power structures. We had this recording in my house "Great Moments in Negro History" when Crispus Attucks did this, and all this stuff. There was this inundation with information about what you come from and the power of what you came from, so that when you went into those rooms, and you were dealing with people who were doubting your right to be there, you entered in with a sense of your own wonder power and superiority, because, yes, you did belong there. And you needed to be charming and polite to be there, but you had another agenda, which is to redefine the texture of the room if you get into that room. So there was this incredible sense of cultural responsibility, cultural awareness, and, again, what you owed to the community that you were connected to. And so that's how I went forward into the world. 

And Levee's sense of responsibility is to his own ambition; it's not to anything larger than himself. It's not connected to that which he is from. It's ultimately going to be because of the sound of the music and the audience and who he is trying to appeal to, but he doesn't have any cultural awareness. The other guys do. He understands white and Black power dynamics because he witnessed the violence that comes from a white mob violating his mother, and then what ends up happening with his father, but he's not a race man, if you will. He's a solo artist. Ma is a race person. Cutler, Slow Drag and Toledo are race men. Levy is not.



Rebecca Mooney