- Published Dec. 3, 2020
IN THE WOODS of Barnesville, Ga., two Black men are running, barely visible in the dusk. There are crickets chirping, dogs barking in the distance and, more immediately, the urgent pants of their breath. This seems to be a familiar horror, but the men aren’t being chased; they’re heading toward a tent. Inside, Ma Rainey — played by Viola Davis, her lips painted burgundy, eyelids smoked with black, cheeks stained merlot — beckons the audience in a royal blue dress. “Daddy, daddy, please come home to me,” she sings, shimmying in the heat.SIGN UP FOR THE T LIST NEWSLETTER: A weekly roundup of what the editors of T Magazine are noticing and coveting right now.Sign Up
“Anytime you see two Black people running in the South, you think the Klan’s somewhere, but, no, they’re not running from something. They’re running to something — to this woman whose voice is telling their story,” says George C. Wolfe, the director of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” the Netflix film version of August Wilson’s beloved play, which debuts this month. The scene feels appropriate for the opening of a Wilson adaptation: One of the most acclaimed Black playwrights in America, he spent more than three decades telling the story of Black America with pride and verve, with language that beckoned like Ma’s voice in that tent.
The play, first produced in 1984 at Yale Repertory Theater in New Haven, Conn., is a fictionalized account of a famous blues singer, Gertrude (Ma) Rainey, who is in Chicago with her band in the 1920s to record a few songs. Ma’s musicians rehearse in a back room, or at least talk about rehearsing: There’s the sensible Cutler (played in the film by Colman Domingo), the laggard Slow Drag (Michael Potts), the thoughtful Toledo (Glynn Turman) and Levee (Chadwick Boseman, who died in August, in his final film role), a young and impetuous trumpet player with an idea for what a new sound might be. Ma finds herself at odds with Levee, as she does with her controlling white agent and the white studio owner, both of whom she knows are exploiting her. That’s the conflict, but much of the play’s pleasure is its dialogue: the characters gabbing, joking and arguing. Accordingly, the pith of the show is Ma’s voice — not just her husky murmur but the sound of a Black artist singing her story to and for her community. “White folks don’t understand about the blues. They hear it come out, but they don’t know how it got there,” Ma says in the play. “They don’t understand that’s life’s way of talking.”
While worthy on its own, the play is just one-tenth of the monumental project that defined Wilson’s career. With “Jitney,” a story about a group of ’70s-era cabdrivers that he wrote in 1979, he began his Pittsburgh Cycle (a.k.a., the American Century Cycle): a decalogue about Black life, one for each decade of the 20th century, all — except for “Ma Rainey” — set in his Pennsylvania hometown, where he was born in 1945. He completed the plays out of chronological order, for he didn’t initially set out to create a series, but nonetheless found a story and characters to represent each decade. And he wrote right up to the end: In 2005, the year of his death from cancer at the age of 60, he finished the last one, “Radio Golf,” about white encroachment and local politics in the 1990s. In addition to these 10 dramas, he wrote six others, but it was the Cycle that solidified his legacy as one of the country’s most important playwrights, an essential figure in not just Black theater but the American canon as a whole; two weeks after his death, Broadway’s Virginia Theater was renamed in his honor.
That’s because, during his life, Wilson had transformed the American stage, which until he arrived had been largely imagined as the nearly exclusive realm of white male writers such as Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill, all of whom explored the limitations and failures of the American dream. But where their domestic dramas concern themselves with a strictly class-based, Gatsby-influenced version of bootstrapism, Wilson’s plays offer a more complex vision of that same dream: one that reflects the challenges of social mobility and its unique racial limitations. Wilson recognizes that the American dream is not, and could never be, the dream of Black Americans, each generation of whom lives with the injuries this country has dealt them. In that way, he introduced a frank, original view of the nation onto the stage — one that was also percolating in literature, visual arts and activism at the end of the last century — via a mythology that began in the early 1900s, with slavery fresh in the minds of his characters, and ended in the 1990s, when Black neighborhoods were trying to redefine themselves under the threat of gentrification.
In cataloging everyday Black lives, he moved theater beyond stereotypes or two-dimensional sketches of Blackness positioned from the purview of whiteness. His characters collide with the expectations of white America, but they also collide with one another, in itself radically humanizing — to have ordinary Black characters with different views and dispositions, as opposed to sharing a monolithic experience — in an era when few such stories found their way to Broadway. But Wilson also bestowed Black audiences with a different gift: a reconsideration of time, measured in and by the lives of the African-Americans living it. He was chronicling not just a century but a past and future of a people, represented by his characters’ memories, griefs, hopes, thoughts and dreams. And he welcomed Black playwrights, directors, actors and producers to both follow and diverge from that template.
Chief among them, perhaps, is the 65-year-old actor Denzel Washington, a producer of the new “Ma Rainey” film and one of the playwright’s leading advocates. In 2010, Washington won a Tony Award for his portrayal of the protagonist, a 1950s sanitation worker named Troy Maxson, in the Broadway revival of Wilson’s most lauded work, “Fences” (1985). In 2014, the Wilson estate, led by the playwright’s widow, Constanza Romero, now 62, approached the actor about adapting the entire Pittsburgh Cycle to film, beginning with the 2016 film version of “Fences,” which Washington directed, produced and starred in opposite Davis, who won an Oscar for her role as Maxson’s beleaguered wife, Rose.
Washington sees his responsibility as both Hollywood connector and Wilson custodian. He convinced Wolfe, 66, the renowned theater director, to helm the new film; and then worked with Romero to hire his friend Samuel L. Jackson and his son, John David Washington, to appear in the next Wilson film, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Piano Lesson” (1987), a 1930s saga about ghosts and a family heirloom that will be overseen by Barry Jenkins. For the rest of the Cycle, which will be shot out of order over the following years, directors and actors such as Ryan Coogler, Ava DuVernay and Laurence Fishburne are all “circling,” Washington says. Over the phone this fall, he compared this undertaking to a relay race, passing on the baton in hopes of winning new audiences for the classics that Wilson left behind. “Lord knows he couldn’t take them with him,” Washington says. “And thank God he did leave them. Now they’ve left them in my hands, and I put them in other people’s hands.”