Interview: George C. Wolfe on turning up the heat in ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ and Chadwick Boseman’s final performance
George C. Wolfe is about to have his big breakthrough.
Best known for his legendary, Tony-winning work on Broadway, producer Denzel Washington entrusted Wolfe with the next of August Wilson’s ‘The Pittsburgh Cycle’ of plays, following Washington’s own Oscar-winning Fences four years ago. Wolfe was born and raised in northern Kentucky, where he went to an all-black public school. His affection for theater began in high school then matured in college, packing up and heading to Pomona College in Claremont, California, where he pursued a BA in theater and ultimately heading to the east coast to earn his MFA in dramatic writing and musical theater at New York University (NYU) in 1983.
The 1980s were a mixed theatrical bag of middling results but the 90s proved to be his theater coming out with huge successes; Spunk in 1990, which earned him an Obie Award for direction followed by Tony nominations 1992’s Jelly’s Last Jam. The very next year brought him his first of two Tonys, for directing the landmark play Angels in America: Millennium Approaches. Wolfe dabbled in feature film and television films, ultimately winning a Directors Guild of America award and an Emmy nomination for 2005’s Lackawanna Blues.
Cut to: 2020. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is the 2nd of 10 plays by August Wilson and part of his Pittsburgh Cycle, which chronicles the 20th-century African-American experience. The title comes from Ma Rainey’s song of the same name and from it the play and film derive their central narrative – the battle of wills during a rehearsal between the Queen of the Blues (Academy Award winner Viola Davis) and her new, young trumpet player Levee (Chadwick Boseman, in a searing performance) who has created a new arrangement of the song behind her back that her white producers like better. The film and play take place over a single day in 1927 Chicago during The Great Migration, where millions of African Americans out of the rural Southern United States to the urban Northeast, Midwest and West between 1916 and 1970.
I talked with Wolfe, who could become only the second openly gay Black director nominated for the Best Director Oscar, on creating the world of Ma Rainey, the fierce commitment Chadwick Boseman had to his role and what he’d be doing if he wasn’t directing.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom premieres on Netflix this Friday, December 18.
Erik Anderson: How are you today?
George C. Wolfe: I’m good. How are you?
I’m doing very well, George. Thank you so much. First off, I want to say that I think the film is incredible and it is really an honor to get to talk to you today.
Oh, thank you, that’s very nice. Thank you so much.
You’re such an icon of the theater world, but Ma Rainey as a film feels really significant for you, almost a breakthrough, of all things. Does it feel that way?
(laughs) That’s a very interesting question. You know, I’ve done other films before, but this is the one where I’ve had, in some respects, the most fun, you know, even though the material is dark and complicated. So, I think there were aspects of certain collaborations that I experienced that were really joyful, and I think authentic collaborations where the essence of you and the essence of the other artist/craft person you’re dealing with meet and something magical happens. I think that happened a number of times here. That felt full fulfilling in a really interesting way, but you go into a project and you give the fullest and the most passionate version of yourself that exists. And hopefully it’s something is worthy of empowering human beings that comes out on the other side.
You and [writer] Ruben Santiago Hudson moved the action of the play from winter to summer. Why did you think that was an important change?
Because to me, that urban landscape, whether it’s New York or Chicago, is really incredibly brutal in the summer because when the heat is pounding down, there’s no earth to absorb it. When it hits concrete, the only soft thing that it can invade is a human body. So I wanted everything, because the stakes are so exceptional with these characters, it’s a one day recording session. So that’s magnified. And then if set it on this incredibly hot day in Chicago, then everything contributes to the stakes and the choices that the characters make. I wanted the audience to see the heat.
I wanted them to see, to understand the impact, and also to understand how for people from the South coming to Chicago, what an alien place it was. I talked with Tobias [Schliessler], the DP, but also with visual effects that I didn’t want blue skies. I wanted white skies with a white dot in the middle of it, the sun. I wanted to avoid seeing any trees in Chicago because I wanted it to be the antithesis of what the South was for these people. I wanted to create an alien environment that would have been magnified and help expose that which is incomplete inside of all of them.
I think it highlights Viola Davis’s makeup and her skin. She’s just kind of she’s glistening, you can feel the heat radiating off her.
And she’s wearing a fur and if nobody would wear it for the weather, but she bought it, she thinks she’s so cute, so she’s going to wear that forever. (both laugh) That’s the brilliance of [costume designer] Ann Roth, everything is revealing something. And also Chicago, for me, it was very important for it to become a character. I wanted to see the South in the very beginning because I didn’t want everybody’s preconceived notion of what the South is. I wanted to say, this is what our South is. This is what the South is in this film.
Faith is a thread in much of August Wilson’s work a lot definitely here in Ma Rainey where it gives Chadwick Boseman that incredible speech in his fight with Colman Domingo. Can you talk me through that sequence from rehearsal to shooting and how that experience was?
Well, it’s very interesting. In another interview I talked about the moment where Chadwick, it’s always an interesting thing where there’s the actor and then there’s the character. We had a two week rehearsal period because I felt it was necessary. It would be incredibly helpful. And so in that process, you began to see people reconfigure their emotional and mental and spiritual organs and put them inside the body of their characters. And there was this one moment where we were just sitting around rehearsing and, not to get spooky about it, where I felt like Levee entered Chadwick or more so Chadwick entered Levee. The speech took him, you know, and I talked about how afterwards he cried and a lot of people picked it up as if trying to read some meaning into it. The meaning was it was an actor doing a crucial turn in his understanding of his role. And that was the first time it happened. And then every day before every scene, I would clear the entire set and work with the actors to make sure that they felt completely and totally comfortable. And then after that, invited the DP, the first AD and a script supervisor. So we had worked out all the details of the fight and all that sort of stuff. But when we got into the emotions of it, the physicality of the fight, I think technically was freeing in one respect.
We did about five or six takes. And it was just every single moment that we went into those two weeks and every single moment that had happened prior to that, because we did that scene in the last week of filming, all that emotion and rawness and vulnerability just erupted, just erupted. It was there and you were watching, you were witnessing brilliant, extraordinary work. After each take, he’d go over into the stair unit that was just outside of the basement set up and he’d collapse and recover. I would go over and I talk to him and I say, you got time for another note and I’d give him a little note and then he’d come back and spend 10, 15 minutes later and do it again, totally raw, fully committed, fully there. It was, it was a miraculous speech, it was a miraculous day.
That’s how I kept feeling, watching it, that he just, he never holds back and you can see his performance just coursing through his veins the whole time.
We talked a little bit about the makeup a bit ago. Can you expand on how the makeup process helped transform Viola Davis into Ma?
Well, you know, Ma had a horse hair wig, and so Mia [Neal, Hair Department Head] made a horse hair wig, she literally made it strand by strand because Ma Rainey had that. Ma Rainey had a necklace with gold chains on it, and she had gold teeth and Viola talked with Ann Roth about what kind of body she wanted. I had been in Pittsburgh scouting locations and I was in the room with Ann and Viola and the team of people, the first time she put on that body suit. And the first time she put on a version of that gold dress and gave her that sort of wonderfully perfect, ridiculous white hat that she wears when she’s in the car. We were talking about this and people were talking about that in details. At one point I was sitting in a chair and I saw that she was looking at herself in the mirror and I went, ‘Oh, my Ma just emerged.’
And then she worked with her team on the makeup and it’s really fascinating because in the 1920s they did not make shades for black skin. So you grabbed whatever there was and you used it and you made it, and it’s performing under the tent shows and these lanterns as lights. So it’s not anything nearly as sophisticated as an actual theater. And so all of just created to this look, that was part vaudeville, part almost Kabuki, like a Kabuki vaudeville mask. And it’s haunted and it’s striking and it’s glorious.
One last question, if you hadn’t become a director, what do you think you would be doing?
I’d be a historian.
Well, you kind of are, aren’t you? (both laugh)
Yeah, and it took me the longest time to figure it out. I helped to create this museum in Atlanta, The Center for Civil and Human rights. And I got into it, it was so interesting because I ended up quote, unquote, staging the civil rights movement, and I read 9,000 books. So the director in me, you know, I brought my director self, I brought my theater self, I brought my film self because we made probably about six mini documentaries and I realized it the historian in me was having a field day. So if I wasn’t doing this, if I wasn’t doing what I do, I’d be a historian.
That makes perfect sense. George, thank you so much for giving me some time today. I really enjoy talking with you.
Oh, great. Definitely enjoyed talking to you, too, Erik. Take care.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.