Viola Davis and George C. Wolfe on ‘Timeless’ August Wilson

The star and director of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” share thoughts on the adaptation and their late co-star.
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The second film adaptation of an August Wilson play is the only one of the great playwright’s “Pittsburgh Cycle” not set in Pittsburgh.

Don’t worry, though: It was still filmed here.

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” which was shot in the city last summer, debuts next week on Netflix after a limited, COVID-shortened theatrical run. Viola Davis, who won an Oscar for her role in “Fences,” stars as the titular singer.

“I think that what’s timeless about what August writes is that he writes humanity,” Davis said in a press conference with critics last week. “Humanity doesn’t run out of time.”

Indeed, the themes in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” — from racial conflicts with law enforcement to pay disparities in the entertainment business — feel particularly relevant, even though the film is set a full century ago.

The film’s director, Tony winner George C. Wolfe, says that resonance drew him to the film. “I’m particularly drawn toward people existing in defiance of the limitations of their times,” he says, noting that Wilson asked him to direct “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” long before it premiered.

“August and I had a conversation in the bathroom at the Goodman Theater, 9,000 years ago,” he jokes. “He said, ‘I want you to direct this play.’ I said, ‘Can I read it?’ He said, ‘I haven’t written it.’”

Another request came much later, when Denzel Washington — who directed “Fences,” and has an ongoing deal to produce 10 Wilson adaptations — asked Wolfe to helm “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Washington was unaware of Wilson’s prior request when he approached Wolfe. “Things align the way they’re supposed to align,” the director says.

The film, which depicts an explosive recording session on a hot summer day, gained unintentional notice as the final project completed by the late Chadwick Boseman. The actor died of colon cancer in August; his co-star and director say his performance, as the confrontational and ambitious trumpet virtuoso Levee, was invaluable.

“Levee is an extraordinary character, because he is as smart as he is clueless,” Wolfe says. “What happened with Chadwick, is he imbued Levee with such charm and such intelligence — he was such an actor of extraordinary charisma.”

“Everything that Chadwick did was, to me, just brilliant,” Davis adds. “I love him raging at God [late in the film], because it’s just something that you just don’t see … With August, he gives that license.

“I just felt that with Chad. It just burnt a hole through my soul — it was so private, almost hard to watch.”

Boseman is seen as a leading contender for next year’s Best Actor Oscar for his turn in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” The posthumous award would be his first. It may not be the only statue claimed by the film, which has already drawn critical raves.

Two Pittsburgh-shot adaptations of Wilson’s works, and (possibly) two Oscar winners: It’s a pattern the city and the playwright’s many admirers would love to see continue. Given the power of Wilson’s works, it shouldn’t be hard to keep up the pace.

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