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Ma Rainey's Black Bottom


Give August "Us" Wilson some motherfucking credit. Most of you lazy sons of bitches can't even sit through a play let alone write one. Wilson, on the other hand, wrote a set of ten plays about the African American experience with each play set in a different decade during the 20th Century. Suck on that while you try to motivate to clean your bathroom for the first time this year.


Some of Wilson's Century Cycle plays pop. Others fizzle. And some, like Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, get adapted into movies. Like virtually every play that has the chance to strut its stuff on the big screen instead of the small stage, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom couldn't be more obviously play-based unless an usher walked you to your seat and handed you a program.


The talk-to-action ratio is about 1,000 to 1. Characters joke and joust, explain and complain about the plight of the Black man in 1920s America. The dialogue is tight, but if you go in hoping for a lot to actually happen, you're gonna have a bad time.


Ma Rainey was a real life blues singer, and she was famous for, among other things, her song "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom." The play and movie fictionalize a particular recording session that Ma and her band had in Chicago in 1927. Ma, played by Viola "Sammy" Davis, is a force of nature. Even as a Black woman in 1927, she ain't takin' no shit, whether it's from the recording studio owner or the brassy, young trumpet player, Levee (Chadwick "Wakanda Forever" Boseman in his final role), who wants to change up the arrangement on the titular song.


The clashes between Ma and Levee happen about as often as a blue moon seeing you stand all alone, so Ma Rainey's Black Bottom gets stuffed with scene after scene of Levee bickering with his bandmates Cutler (Colman "Santa" Domingo), Toledo (Glynn "Glynn" Turman), and Slow Drag (Michael "Pepper" Potts). Levee does take some time out to screw around with Ma's girlfriend (yes, Ma was bi/gay, and yes, Levee seems less interested in keeping his job than a trust funder with an attitude problem).


Davis' and Boseman's performances will blow you away, but did we really need the stuttering nephew subplot? No, sir. We most definitely did not.


May 7, 2021


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