South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday)

Rainey ‘unapologet­ic’ about her worth, power

In role, Davis finds the singer’s battles hit close to home

- By JenYamato

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

cheap.

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.”

 ?? DAVIDLEE/NETFLIX ?? Chadwick Boseman, fromleft, ColmanDomi­ngo, ViolaDavis, Michael Potts and GlynnTurma­n perform in“MaRainey’s Black Bottom.” Netflix has unveiled the film in a limited theatrical run and will begin streaming itDec. 18.
DAVIDLEE/NETFLIX Chadwick Boseman, fromleft, ColmanDomi­ngo, ViolaDavis, Michael Potts and GlynnTurma­n perform in“MaRainey’s Black Bottom.” Netflix has unveiled the film in a limited theatrical run and will begin streaming itDec. 18.

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