David Fox: In August Wilson’s ten-play Century Cycle—collectively, one of American drama’s greatest achievements—Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a bit of an outlier. It’s the only one not set in Pittsburgh (in fact, the plays are often called “The Pittsburgh Cycle,” though Ma Rainey takes place in 1920s Chicago on a hot summer day). It’s the only one to feature a historical character—Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, a formidable blues singer and entrepreneur who helped pave the way for Bessie Smith and others. Yet despite the title and the character’s notable presence, it’s less about Ma than focused on her sidemen and the predominantly white world in which she makes her historically influential recordings. And though Ma Rainey has had several significant productions, including two on Broadway, it has not achieved the visibility that other Century Cycle plays—especially Fences, but also Joe Turner’s Come and Gone and The Piano Lesson—have had. At least, that’s the case till now. This often sensational Netflix film version, adapted with exceptional style by screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson and director George C. Wolfe, and starring the great Viola Davis, may change all that.
Cameron Kelsall: I hope so, and I hope too that it will introduce Wilson’s work to a wider audience. I’d argue that he’s the most consequential American playwright of the past 50 years. If you spend as much time in the theater world as we do, though, it’s easy to forget that his work hasn’t always penetrated the wider cultural conversation. Prior to this high-profile adaptation, the only other Wilson play that’s made its way to the big screen was Fences in 2016—nearly 30 years after it premiered, and a decade past Wilson’s untimely death at the age of 60. There seems to be a popular belief that his works are too intricate and expansive for the medium, and the filmed Fences, which was based on a Broadway revival starring Davis and Denzel Washington, somewhat confirmed that by staying hidebound to its own staginess. The first thing I noticed about Ma Rainey is how it’s been slimmed down and punched up by Santiago-Hudson and Wolfe—clocking in at just 95 minutes, it hits all the marks of Wilson’s original while smartly settling into a snappier, more focused filmic style. It should serve as a model for bringing some of his other stories to the screen successfully.