Netflix begins streaming “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” on December 18. The August Wilson play has enjoyed an excellent life on Broadway and beyond. And for good reason. It is a powerful creation.
I think that in the Denzel Washington-produced movie we will see what a treasure and tragic loss was the death of Chadwick Boseman in August. This was his last performance.
This most recent news from Netflix sends me back nearly to the creation of the play, in 1982.
At that time, I lived and worked for a newspaper in New London, a small forever-struggling city in the southeast corner of Connecticut. A very short drive down the coast was the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford.
The playwright O’Neill pretty much grew up in New London at the family summer cottage on Pequot Avenue. He wrote his first two plays at Monte Cristo Cottage and based “Long Day’s Journey into Night” and “Ah, Wilderness” at the cottage. It is now a museum and National Heritage site.
Every summer, the O’Neill Center brings together young and emerging playwrights with work-in-progress, as well as theatre critics, and directors and actors. There, in a boiling cauldron of creativity and critique, the playwrights work on their scripts, the directors and actors help them realize their vision on a minimalist stage, and the critics got to see the creative process from the inside.
At the end of their two weeks together, live readings of the plays are given their public premiere at the Center before their first live audience. Wilson premiered “Ma Rainey,” “Fences,” and “The Piano Lesson” at the O’Neill as works-in-progress. They had a long and fruitful relationship. As did other prominent playwrights who nursed plays to life there.
It is for good reason that the O’Neill Center calls itself “The Launchpad of American Theater.”
One of the plays in that wonderful cauldron during the summer of my one year in New London was Wilson’s “Ma Rainey.”
The house that I shared in New London with a grad student and an expatriate Californian named Bud was big enough to put-up two of the visiting theatre critics, one from Baltimore and one from somewhere in Florida.
Every night they would return to the house and regale us with stories about the plays taking shape during the conference. There were some good ones and we got to see several of them.
But everyone was waiting for “Ma Rainey” and it did not disappoint.
The thing is, I am sure Wilson’s play changed from the work-in-progress premiere at the O’Neill to its journey to Broadway in 1984, and now to the movie screen.
How much, I have no idea.
(I have never seen a full-blown stage production of Wilson’s finished work. Several months after the O’Neill livestage reading, I moved to San Diego. About as far away from Broadway as you could get.)
The night of the “Ma Rainey” live-reading, we raced back from the O’Neill Center to our house and gathered around the kitchen table to talk about it.
In the play, blues legend Ma Rainey is cutting an album in Chicago in the 1920s and is an a difficult struggle with her white manager and the record producers over creative control of the music. While she does battle, her band, including a hotshot new trumpet player named Levee (Chadwick Boseman), sits around telling tales, spinning legends, and reliving long days as black musicians in a white man’s world.
Levee has powerful dreams, swaggering ambitions, loads of charm and the arrogance of the young — all working both for and against him. The story (back then, maybe today as well) culminated in a spontaneous act of violence that will forever seal Levee’s fate.
It was that scene that captured our attention. Was there enough there? Were Levee’s actions justifiable? Was it too contrived? Too spontaneous? Justifiable?
I confess that I was in the minority that had doubts. (Maybe I was the only one. It was so long ago. Maybe I just wanted to show off my own critical chops for our visiting critics.)
A sudden explosion brought our reasoned debate over violence and “Ma Rainey” to a halt. It sounded very much like a pistol shot and it was really, really, close by.
We rushed out — Can you rush cautiously? — to the front porch.
A scrawny young man in a badly torn shirt was rooting around in the pile of trash that we’d set out at the curb. His shoulder-length hair was swinging as wildly as his arms as he searched for — a weapon?
Yes, a weapon. He found a length of metal, a bar of some sort and raising it on high like a knight in battle rushed back toward our next-door neighbor’s front door.
Where he was brought up short by reason.
The reason being our neighbor’s wife or girlfriend. She was standing on the steps, pointing a pistol at him and screaming, “Take another step and I will kill you, you fucker!” Pretty compelling argument.
She continued to reason with him: “Drop that stick or I will shoot you!”
The shot we’d heard had apparently gone up into the air as a warning. I don’t think she would have missed.
Sitting on the steps was the boyfriend holding his head and bleeding somewhat all over the steps.
As best we could piece it together, the guy in the front yard with the torn shirt did a shitty job fixing the car of the guy bleeding all over the steps. He still wanted his money. The bleeding guy still wanted him to finish the job and fix the goddamned car.
Words were exchanged. Then fists. Then some crazy wrestling on the front lawn and sidewalk. (That’s where the torn shirt and bloody head came about, I think.)
Then the shot was fired.
The screaming and shouting never did stop until the sound of an approaching siren was heard in the distance.
The shitty mechanic ran off into the darkness. (He actually returned his weapon to our pile of trash as he ran.)
The car owner’s wife/girlfriend retreated into the house with her pistol. The bleeder just sat on the steps with his head in his hands. Still bleeding. As the police siren grew louder.
We retreated inside, having not seen the origins of the fracas and really having nothing to offer to the police.
But as we re-gathered around the table, the verdict was unanimous: Levee’s actions? More than justified. It doesn’t take much.
Postscript: A few months later, I came home from work late one evening to see an ambulance and several police cars parked next door.
This did not look good.
I found my housemates upstairs in a darkened bedroom, peering out the window.
Across the way, we could see a couple of plain clothes detectives talking to the lady of the house. On the floor in a pool of blood was her husband/boyfriend.
I never did get to the bottom of that story, but whatever it was, it didn’t take much.