The ambition was staggering: Ten plays each set in a different decade of the 20th century — each in its own way wrestling with legacy, with the spiritual and the corporeal, and with place and displacement. Plays with rich, complex characters and emotional heft. Plays that inspired a handful of theaters around the country to stage all 10. The author: August Wilson.
The ambition is staggering: Ten feature films based on the aforementioned plays, known as The Pittsburgh Cycle.
In 2016, the first of these filmed adaptations hit the screen with Wilson’s most-produced work, the 1950s-set Fences. The result, in my mind, outstanding not just in its performances led by Denzel Washington (who spearheaded the grand project) and Viola Davis but also in its skillful screenplay adaptation. Crafting a film out of a play written by someone of Wilson’s stature and achievement is …
Wait, strike that. You’d be hard-pressed to find another playwright of Wilson’s stature and achievement. There’s nobody in the recent century who comes close to this level of ambition and batting average. (No, that was not a deliberate Fences reference.)
Instead, let’s say that adapting Wilson comes with enormous pressure. Yes, it must embrace the cinematic form, but it also has to retain the language and depth, the subtlety and the bigness, that makes the original theatrical creations so special. On top of that, this is a unique preservation event. Recordings of the stage productions aren’t on the market. In many cities, regional theaters don’t have the ambition or the available cast and crew (or both) to pull off these demanding shows.
Filming the cycle is also about preserving and honoring this unprecedented panoramic.
Fences did that — even if the ending made you uncomfortable.
Now, via Netflix, comes the second in the series, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, set in the 1920s and with former Public Theatre head honcho George C. Wolfe directing. (The film is currently in limited theatrical release and premieres on the streaming service on Friday, Dec. 18.)
The plot, briefly, concerns the title blues singer (a revelatory Viola Davis) arriving in Chicago for a recording session. Among the band assembled there is Levee (Chadwick Boseman), a young, talented horn player who has ideas of his own about what the music should sound like. His ideas happen to also be favored by the white owner of the record label. But Ma Rainey isn’t someone remotely interested in compromise.
I’ve seen half of Wilson’s 10-play cycle on stage and each time I’ve found myself later recalling feelings more than plot. Wilson’s characters uniquely and seamlessly blend poetry with everyday language, sometimes swelling into arias of rage and pain. The heightened discourse allows for what could be clichés (a door that won’t open, for instance) to feel natural in this universe. And, in Ma Rainey, Wolfe masterfully manages to find a subtle cinematic language for all of it. It has less narrative resolution than Fences but is visually richer. Only one opening-up meta-directorial choice took me out of the piece, but I quickly returned.
The term “theatrical” is often the knee-jerk criticism of films adapted from the stage that don’t overtly open up the material significantly (including Netflix’s own recent The Boys in the Band). But history often shows that adaptations that do take that approach (again, I’m looking at you, August: Osage County) often miss the intimacy and the careful pacing of their source material. The magic can easily evaporate.
Ma Rainey demands that we adapt to its rhythms rather than have it bend to what traditional movies have conditioned us to expect.
That can be an adjustment. But it’s well worth it when the material is this solid.
My hope not only is that we get to see the next eight Wilson adaptations but that this also props open the door to screen versions of the work of even more outstanding Black playwrights. It’s easy for theaters to offer A Raisin in the Sun or an August Wilson play — likely in February, of course — and then feel like they’ve done good. But there’s great work out there to be staged … and filmed. (For starters, where are the movie versions of Lynn Nottage’s By the Way, Meet Vera Stark and Ruined?)
Of course, for now, it will be nearly impossible to watch Ma Rainey without being aware of the loss of Chadwick Boseman. Small solace, I know, but there are few actors in movie history whose cinematic farewell is a great performance in a great film.
(Learn more about the theaters that have presented all 10 plays in Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle.)