South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday)
Rainey ‘unapologetic’ about her worth, power
In role, Davis finds the singer’s battles hit close to home
ViolaDavis has collected anAcademyAward, an Emmy, twoTonys and dozens more acting kudos, and nowanother powerhouse role has propelled her to the top of the 2021 best actress Oscar race: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, the unapologetically brash real-life Southern blues singer at the center of a tempestuous 1927 Chicago recording session in the AugustWilson adaptation “Ma Rainey’sBlack Bottom.”
It’s a juicy role that has landedDavis in the Oscar conversation along with her co-star, the late Chadwick Boseman, who dazzles in his final performance as a hotheaded young horn player with eyes forMa’s girlfriend and radicalnewideas for Ma’s music. But even the formidableDavis admits shewasn’t initially sure she could pull off the swaggering blues legend.
“There’s a typecasting that happens in the business, and after a while, you start to typecast yourself and think of 50million other peoplewhocould have played the role,” says Davis, 55. “But that’s not what acting is. It’s a transformative art form. It’s about taking whatever you have and using it to transform into a character that is completely different than you.”
She typecasted herself, Davis says— until she stopped comparing herself to other actresses and embraced the challenge. DenzelWashington never doubted that she could fill Rainey’s shoes. “Viola can do anything,” saysWashington, a producer on “Ma Rainey.” “Therewas no question that she could do
it. She’s a once-in-a-generation talent.”
In 2010, she starred with Washington in theBroadway revival of playwright Wilson’s Pulitzer-winning “Fences.” Six years later, withWashington at the helm, Davis reprised the role of dutiful 1950s housewifeRoseMaxson in the film version andwon her firstAcademyAward.
Back in 2001, Daviswon her firstTony for “King Hedley II,” another title in Wilson’s 10-play “Century Cycle.” Wilson’s impact is of major significance toDavis, whoalso executive produced the upcomingNetflix documentary “GivingVoice,” about an annual speech competition dedicated to the playwright’s legacy.
“AugustWilsonwas basically a griot, which in Africawere historians, storytellers, praise singers, poets, whokept the history alive in the tribes,” she says. “They kept our stories alive. Andthat’s whatAugust Wilsonwas— a griot. And
whatmakes him powerful is that he’s ours. He belongs to the African American community. Hewrote to elevate us. To elevate our humor. To elevate our beauty. To elevate our pain. To elevate our complexity, and to elevate ultimately whowewere in every decade of life.”
In “MaRainey,” Davis sinks her teeth into the title character’s grandiosity with nuance and rings even her triumphs with a bruising, melancholy aftertaste. An openly queer Black songstress defiant of the bigotry of the era, Ma Rainey demands her due fromallwhocross her path, fromthe strangers whose hostile glares she returns while parading her muchyounger girlfriend (Taylour Paige) on her arm, to the bickering members of her band (Colman Domingo, Michael Potts, Glynn Turman, Boseman) and the white managers (Jeremy Shamos, JonnyCoyne) trying to squeeze another hit record out of her on the
As the day unfolds, Ma tangles with her recording execs and the band spins yarns and trades barbs in a basement practice room. The ensuing symphony of microaggressions and melodrama is deceptively mundane; swirling tensions reach a fever pitch over a musical arrangement, a stutter and an ice-cold bottle of Coca-Cola. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”— titled after the hit song that becomes hotly contested over the course of the chaotic afternoon— left Davis invigorated.
In Rainey, she found an artist whose battles hit close to home. “Shewas a womanwhowas unapologetic about herworth and her power. She’s constantly reminding peoplewhoshe is, and that had a transformative effect onmetoo,” saysDavis. “That’s what happens a lot in our profession: You’re always hustling for yourworth. That’s what you’re constantly doing in this business and in this
world, so it felt very liberating to play awomanwho was not doing that.”
Researching such a singular historical figure was no easy feat, says director GeorgeC. Wolfe, considering that only “six or seven” photographs of the real Rainey exist today. Unlike contemporaries like Bessie Smith, Raineywas not considered glamorous or anointed by white mainstreammedia.
Instead, Davis drewon Wilson’s text, adapted for the screen by playwright and actorRuben Santiago-Hudson, and searched within to understandwho Raineywas. “What I have to rely on ismy life experience, because therein lies the problem: Ma Rainey is considered theMother of the Blues, but finding any material aboutMa Rainey was very difficult,” she says.
She thought of her aunts, her mother, her grandmother and ofwomen spiritually in tunewith Rainey. “I understand the emotional life of those people because they’re in my life— those complicated, beautiful, funny, hardcore, unapologetic people have been inmy life forever.”
ButMa also has a surprisingly tender side reserved for her nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown) and for her lover Dussie Mae. Her truest moments of vulnerability, however, are shared with her bandleader and trombonist Cutler (Domingo), with whomshe briefly drops the exhausting veil of toughness she dons inmost aspects of her life.
Domingo describes an unusually intensive two-week rehearsal period the cast had in which they pored over the script in meticulous detail, “as ifwe were a theater company.” “We talked about the idea thatMa and Cutler have a closeness that they don’t have with the rest of the band. Shewas a pioneer, shewas verymucha maverick— and what she didwas sheempowered the menin her band aswell.”
By contrast, Davis conjures a prickly dynamic with Boseman as Levee, whose youthful arrogance and newer, jazzier style represent a looming threat toMa’s authority. After playing mother and son in 2014’s “GetOnUp,” the duowage a battle ofwills as adversaries in “Ma Rainey,” whichDavis calls a “fitting denouement” to Boseman’s cinematic legacy.
“Levee is probably one of the greatest, if not the greatest role for an African American man, ever, because it absolutely encapsulates them— their pain, their vision, their dreams, their talent,” she says. “It’s like someone whohas a great figurewho has towear a burlap sack; this is an artist being fitted with anAugustWilson garment that couldn’t have been more perfect. And he wore it beautifully. He just played the role beautifully.”