Gertrude “Ma” Rainey is best known as the Mother of the Blues, but she was also an out-and-proud lesbian.
The fiercely talented and defiantly proud blues pioneer is getting renewed attention due to Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, a new Netflix movie from prolific theater director George C. Wolfe (Angels in America, The Normal Heart). Based on playwright August Wilson’s 1984 drama of the same name, Ma Rainey takes place over the course of one fateful day at a recording studio in 1927. Viola Davis stars in the titular role, with the late Chadwick Boseman and breakout star Taylour Paige appearing as supporting characters Levee and Dussie Mae, respectively. Dussie is Ma’s girlfriend, but Levee, one of Ma’s band members, has his eye on her — and a major problem with Ma’s unquestioned authority.
NewNowNext caught up with Wolfe, who is gay himself, to chat about reviving the decades-old play for the screen, working with Boseman in his last film role, and making a career out of telling queer stories.
How familiar were you with the original play before working on this project?
I saw it in previews when it was on Broadway back in 1984. I was only 2 at the time, so it was dazzling, you know. [Laughs] It was dazzling and amazing, and announced this extraordinary writer [August Wilson]. And then he kept writing and kept writing and kept writing, and then there were 10 plays.
You said it yourself: The original play is from the ’80s. Why retell this story, and why now?
Well, I don’t think you put a date on art. I mean, sometimes art can end up being dated. Sometimes you can look at certain movies or you can look at certain plays, and you realize they are so reflective of their time period. But a great work of art, it really doesn’t matter when it was written.
I loved how the film didn’t shy away from showing Ma’s queerness. Do you think her queerness should be a big part of her legacy?
Well, I think you have to find a new word other than “out” to describe Ma Rainey. I don’t think she was ever in [the closet]. It was interesting… Do you know the song “Prove It On Me Blues?”
That’s one of the songs that’s on the list that, in theory, she records through the course of this day, and those lyrics are so undervalued. “I went out last night with a bunch of friends / Must’ve been women, ’cause I don’t like men.” She has lyrics about wearing a tie. It’s totally there. It’s who she was. But also the time period — everybody thinks that, you know, Stonewall happened and then… But no. There was an extraordinary period in the ’20s and ’30s, where that’s the way it was. And it wasn’t just in Harlem. It was all over, you know? And so, particularly with the Jim Crow laws and segregation, the Black community owned everybody. They had to own everybody and claim everybody because they needed everybody in order to survive. And Ma, she employed all these people. She owned two theaters in Georgia. She was a showbiz entrepreneur, period. So, are you got to stand there and make comments about that, the fact that she’s a lesbian? Or are you going to get a job?
Viola Davis brings so much life and depth to Ma’s character. What was it like working with her?
It was a joy. Sometimes you work with actors who are very smart, but they don’t have their craft. Or you work with actors who are full of crap, but their emotional stakes are there. Viola is very smart. Her craft is phenomenal, and she’s emotionally so present and vibrant. So it’s a joy to work with her… you start this conversation with her when she has these impulses, and then you have a few impulses, and then you toss them around. When you’re working with Viola, chances are something glorious is going to emerge, and it did.
I have to ask, what was it like working with Chadwick Boseman in his last film before he passed?
Everything that I said about Viola is exactly the same thing with Chadwick — he’s very smart, very committed. It’s a monster role. He was so ferociously committed and made himself totally available to the role — to its charm, to its dark crevices, to the complications inside of him, to the incompleteness of Levee and to the damage inside of him. He wrapped Levee around himself in an extraordinary way. It was breathtaking to watch while we were filming. And then when I started editing and really digging into it, I felt so blessed, so honored, and so proud of his work.
I loved Dussie Mae, Ma’s girlfriend, who was played by Taylour Paige. Could you tell me more about her?
Taylour, she’s so sweet and so amazing. I love that scene because Dussie is sort of like, “Oh, attention over there. Okay, I’ll go over there. Oh, attention over here. Let me go.” I love that about her. … Taylour said while we were rehearsing, “If Dussie Mae was around today, she’d be an Instagram influencer.” [Laughs] It’s totally true. And I love her relationship with Ma. I love their relationship Ma because Ma liked a lot of girls. I don’t think Ma was the most deeply, “I’m married to somebody” kind of personality. I think she liked to mess around a lot.
You’ve worked on so many projects with LGBTQ characters or storylines throughout your career, from Angels in America to The Normal Heart. Why is it important to you to tell queer stories?
In some respects, I got to skip over the “this is important” and “this story needs to be told” because right after I did my first Broadway show, I got offered Angels in America. It’s extraordinary and astonishing, and after that, glorious scripts just kept on being delivered to me. People kept on saying, “Will you direct this?” or “Will you be involved with that?” So, maybe when I would’ve gotten to the point where I was saying “queer stories need to be—” “Oh, here’s a new script, and it’s extraordinary!”
What was it like working with the late Larry Kramer on The Normal Heart?
I was feeling disillusioned about Broadway [at the time]. And I got a call, “Will you work on The Normal Heart?” Working on that piece, meeting Larry Kramer, and seeing the response that young gay men and women had while watching that play was so empowering. I work really hard and all that good stuff, but I feel like I’ve been repeatedly blessed to be entrusted with important work that ends up not just being something that is entertaining and enjoyable to watch, but that is empowering and uplifting.
Can you speak at all to bringing Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom back into the zeitgeist amid this year’s resurgence of Black Lives Matter activism?
I was working on [post-production for the film] in July. I was just like, “Can we put it out now?” I was so impatient, but I’m glad that it’s coming out [now] over my impulsiveness because I’m thrilled that this film can be in conversation with this moment. I think a significant number of us are asking questions and are engaging in dialogue, and anything that can help encourage you to keep going is very, very important at this point in time because we can’t retreat. Moving forward may be complicated and cumbersome and awkward, but as responsible human beings and citizens of this country, we’re not allowed to retreat. We are not.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is streaming now on Netflix.