Netflix’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” fulfills an idea that was nearly 40 years in the making: a film version of August Wilson’s play.
In October 1984, Variety’s Richard Hummler reviewed its Broadway debut, praising Wilson as “a new writer of talent and power.” He added “The play will likely have a healthy production life elsewhere and could make a gripping film.”
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Three years later, Variety’s Kathleen O’Steen asked Wilson if he would like to see his plays, such as “Black Bottom,” translated into film. He responded, “That I would be delighted with.” However, he was not interested in doing the adaptation himself. As Wilson explained, “I have steadfastly refused any film offers because I have a goal I want to achieve.”
The goal was his 10-play project, nicknamed The Pittsburgh Cycle or The Century Cycle, with each play covering a decade of the 20th century. Before “Ma Rainey’s,” Wilson’s two Pulitzer winners, “Fences” (1987) and “The Piano Lesson” (1990), were the only screen adaptations (in 2016 and 1995, respectively; “Fences” scored four Oscar nominations and “Piano” was nominated for nine Emmys).
The infrequency will change, thanks to Denzel Washington, who in 2015 signed with Wilson’s estate to film all 10. “August Wilson is one of the greatest playwrights in American theater history, and to share his style, his words, his wisdom and his talent with the world is a great privilege,” said Washington when Netflix’s “Ma” was announced. He added that it was an honor to work with the director, “the incomparable George C. Wolfe.”
Wilson was prolific, writing five of the 10 plays in a six-year span, 1982-87. He dismissed the idea of writer’s block, telling Variety, “You put a piece of paper in the typewriter, you type on it. … If it’s not good, you tear it up and start over again; it’s not that big a deal.”
He died in 2005 at age 60, after completing the 10th play, “Radio Golf.” Though each covers a different decade, he didn’t write them consecutively; the first, “Jitney,” was written in 1982, about the ’70s; “Ma Rainey” was next, written in 1984 and set in the ’20s.
“Ma” takes place in Chicago, the only one of the 10 not set in Pittsburgh. While the setting was unique, so is the subject matter: Gertrude (Ma) Rainey, aka the Mother of the Blues.
In the decades following her 1939 death, Variety mentioned her frequently as an influence on generations of singers, calling her “the immortal Ma Rainey.”
In 1913, a story stated that the Rabbit’s Foot Minstrels (of which she was a member) was “fairly well received” at the Lyric. In 1928, a year after the film takes place, Variety reported on her Newark, N.J., restaurant, saying, “Mrs. Rainey was finally forced to close her eatery” because she had extended credit to so many musicians and other performers.
As for the Black Bottom, Variety in 1926 carried stories nearly every week on the dance craze, saying it had become a drawing card in vaudeville, burlesque and nightclubs. It also reported that “several of the big Broadway shows have inserted it as a specialty number,” in the days when musicals didn’t always need logic to cue up a song.
For example, a St. Louis nightclub fired Coster & Rich, claiming their version of the dance was “indecent” and patrons had complained.
However, Variety’s reporter had witnessed the show and said their version “was minus many of the body wiggles usually accompanying the Black Bottom steps.”
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