George C. Wolfe’s appropriation blues

The director of the film adaptation of ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ has been tripping cultural land mines for decades

Let’s get right to it. I’m going to reveal the ending of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Before I do, I urge you to find Netflix and spend 94 minutes with Viola Davis, the late Chadwick Boseman and the stellar supporting cast in George C. Wolfe’s fleet, exquisite screen adaptation of August Wilson’s play. The drama got fine reviews when it opened on Broadway in 1984, marking Wilson’s Broadway debut. The film, however, has proven to be the kind of event that compels critics to empty their quivers of superlatives.

That’s true not only for its career-defining performance by an actor whose time was cut short last summer by cancer. But also because this is the first joining of the playwright, whose “Pittsburgh Cycle” about Black life in America earned him the Pulitzer Prize for drama twice, and Wolfe, whose work as a writer, director and producer has brought him an astonishing 24 Tony Award nominations and five wins, not to mention an Emmy. When the Academy Award nominations are announced on March 15, Ma Rainey will almost certainly be well represented there, too.

From the beginning, Wilson’s and Wolfe’s careers — both came of age artistically in the 1980s and rose to the top of the cultural pantheon in the ’90s – ran on parallel tracks, only occasionally intersecting. They were dissimilar artists. In such celebrated plays as Fences and The Piano Lesson, Wilson, an urban poet from Pittsburgh who died of liver cancer at 60 in 2005, plotted his dramas with the quotidian struggles and rare triumphs of characters who were often suffused with spirits from the past.

Wolfe, 66, a son of Frankfort, Kentucky, emerged from New York University’s graduate dramatic writing and musical theater programs hell-bent on exploding the common – and commonly exploited – myths of Black American lives. In 1986, he made his New York debut at the Public Theater with The Colored Museum, whose dioramalike scenes (think In Living Color or A Black Lady Sketch Show) took a battering ram to Black cultural monuments.

George C. Wolfe says Ma Rainey, played by Viola Davis in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, is “coming from a place of power in the segregated South.”

David Lee/Netflix

“There comes a time when a satirical writer, if he’s really out for blood, must stop clowning around and move in for the kill,” Frank Rich began his admiring New York Times review. No kidding. Raves from the critics – nearly all of them white – didn’t prevent a backlash against Wolfe for skewering Black culture, especially, in the show’s most scathing scene, “The Last Mama-on-the-Couch Play,” a parody of Lorraine Hansberry’s pathbreaking A Raisin in the Sun.

Raisin in the Sun is a brilliant play and Lorraine Hansberry’s an extraordinary, brilliant writer,” Wolfe told me in a Zoom interview last week. “But pre-August [Wilson], and in some respects pre-Colored Museum, every February, every regional – and by regional theater, I do mean white theater – would do their one Black play.” Because, of course, it was Black History Month.

“And that one Black play would be A Raisin in the Sun. There was sort of a calcification of that play and of those tropes that had evolved. That which was sparkling and new and fresh and political was weighed down by the repeating and repeating and repeating.”

With Colored Museum, “It wasn’t ‘Let me dethrone A Raisin in the Sun,’ ” Wolfe recalled. “I said, ‘Let me just throw up all of it and blow it all up and see what’s left and create a kind of freedom for me. Let me blow up everything.’ ”

Over the next decades, Wolfe would continue sifting Black American culture’s treasures and transgressions – originating musicals that examined the seminal jazz of Ferdinand Joseph La Menthe, aka Jelly Roll Morton, in Jelly’s Last Jam (1991), and the legacy of jazz in music and dance with Bring in ’Da Noise, Bring in ’Da Funk (1995).

That same decade, he would stage the Broadway premieres of Tony Kushner’s two-part Angels in America as well as Anna Deavere Smith’s Fires in the Mirror and Twilight: Los Angeles. For HBO in 2005, he directed Lackawanna Blues (written by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who would also be credited with the screenplay for Ma Rainey). At the same time, Wolfe took over the Public Theater after some shaky years following the death of its founder, Joseph Papp, and ran it from 1993 through 2004. It’s where he had gotten his bomb-throwing start, and he returned as an establishment luminary when the Public needed to change to reflect an evolving culture. The irony isn’t lost on him.

“There were these white writers who were writing plays about old Black tap-dancers,” he said. “And I just remember going, ‘What gives them the sense of authority that they can write these plays? Somebody has decided what Black culture is.’ ”

Chadwick Boseman had a career-defining performance as Levee in the film adaptation of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

David Lee/Netflix

Our latest conversation felt like a continuation of one we’ve been having for 35 years, when I first interviewed him for the New York Times after The Colored Museum opened. He was pissed off then, and remains so today: Wolfe and Wilson share a rage at the usurping and co-optation of Black American culture by white managers and artists.

The only one of Wilson’s plays based on a real-life character, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, finds the Georgia-born blues superstar in a white-owned recording studio in Roaring ’20s Chicago. Wolfe’s most recent Broadway show, 2016’s Shuffle Along, or, the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed, was also set in the ’20s and concerns the exploitation of Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle’s exuberant Broadway hit.

Which brings us to the final scene of the Ma Rainey film, set at a rundown recording studio.

In a gasp-inducing outburst, the humiliated young cornetist and songsmith Levee, played by Boseman, has stabbed Toledo, a fellow musician, and is seen cradling his blood-spattered body as Ma Rainey (Davis) is driven off in her chauffeured limousine. The camera then returns to the studio, where the white producer nods approvingly as a white singer, backed by an all-white band, records a lowdown blues all but stolen from Levee. The musicians do everything but “Black up.”

The scene with the white band is foreshadowed in the play when the producer pays Levee $5 for a song he insists no one will record. But Wilson didn’t write it – it’s not in the play. The blanched recording session is the director’s coda, making explicit what the playwright had only implied.

The addition is pure George Wolfe and did not go unnoticed. “Director Wolfe has added an epilogue, spelling out that chain of exploitative musical commerce,” wrote Michael Phillips in the Chicago Tribune. “The bitter jokiness of the coda may rankle some Wilson purists.” Others said the scene echoed a similar point from Dreamgirls.

“There’s a brief moment in Dreamgirls where they sing ‘Cadillac Car’ and then all of a sudden you have the bland white people singing ‘Cadillac Car,’ ” Wolfe concurred.

“George is really truly a genius. He’s very, very creative and very inclusive.” — Denzel Washington, one of the producers on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, on George C. Wolfe

But in Ma Rainey, the rip-off of Levee’s song isn’t bland, it’s imitative and mocks the culture it’s stealing from.

“We see it explicitly and we get that there are two murders,” Wolfe said. “There’s what Levee does to Toledo. And then there’s the murder of the culture.

“Ma speaks about singing for what comes from our heart, but they want to put her, her voice into those machines,” he continued, referring to the recording apparatus. She’ll make the money that pays for her jewels, her fancy cars and her girlfriends, but in exchange, she will give up control and part of her soul. Levee, on the other hand, is hipper to the fact that the world is changing, and he demands a place at the table.

“Hopefully we’ve fallen in love with Levee,” said Wolfe. “He’s foolish and he’s arrogant and he’s smart and he’s clueless. But you know, particularly as Chadwick plays him, he’s this incredible character full of possibility and full of extraordinary pain. So we identify with the theft.”

Denzel Washington, one of the producers on Ma Rainey, has committed to producing films of all 10 of the plays in the Pittsburgh Cycle. He directed and starred (with Davis) in Fences and has become an unabashed advocate of Wolfe’s work.

“George is really truly a genius,” Washington told me in an email. “He’s very, very creative and very inclusive.”

Wolfe’s fire-breathing is catnip to critics. He’s uninterested in soft-pedaling his point of view or his approach as a gay Black man. His responses to my questions crackle like machine-gun bursts. A key inspiration for Shuffle Along, for example, was that George Gershwin was a repeat patron of the long-running Blake-Sissle hit from the ’20s – and that Blake’s music showed up in Gershwin’s jazz-infused compositions, notably “I Got Rhythm.”

“The ingesting of artists, I think that’s what it’s about,” Wolfe said. “In this case, it’s very specifically dealing with Black artists, but that’s the machinery of ingesting artists. What are the consequences? Break dancing evolves in the South Bronx and two seconds later, it’s in a McDonald’s commercial. There’s Paris is Burning and then there’s Madonna’s ‘Vogue.’ What happened to the people in Paris is Burning? Many of them died because of the AIDS epidemic. Who gets eaten and – and what survives?”

I asked him where cultural appropriation ends and assimilation begins.

“I think it depends on, what is the point,” he shot back. “With Shuffle Along, [Follies impresario Florenz] Ziegfeld invites the Black chorus girls to teach his white chorus girls how to dance. Those Black girls are not going to get those jobs. So on one level, you’re exposing these extraordinary moves and this rhythm to the American popular culture. But there are consequences. American popular culture eats and eats and eats, and what it eats, it spreads around the world. It’s complicated.”

From left to right: Savion Glover, George C. Wolfe, Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Billy Porter during Broadway’s opening night curtain call for Shuffle Along at the Music Box Theatre on April 28, 2016, in New York City.

Walter McBride/WireImage

Not long after Wilson ascended to the national theater scene with Ma Rainey, he was hired to write the script for Mr. Jelly Lord, a new musical about the life of Jelly Roll Morton. Playwriting is essentially a solo endeavor, unlike the multiple collaborations that go into creating a musical. After several attempts, Wilson departed and the show stalled until the early 1990s, when Wolfe was brought on board to write the script and direct what ultimately became Jelly’s Last Jam.

Wolfe’s Broadway debut brought him his first two Tony nominations, but not immediate acceptance. “There has never been anything like it, on or off Broadway,” declared Edith Oliver in The New Yorker. But both the Times and my review in Variety noted that, after a sensational first act, the show “collapsed” in the second, leaving star Gregory Hines with little to do. At the Tony Awards ceremony, Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, who shared the award for their lighting of the show, made a point of welcoming Wolfe to the exclusive Broadway fold.

“Nobody applauded,” Wolfe recalled. “You know, and I went there. I was tied up in these complicated dynamics of existing in defiance of certain communities while at the exact same time wanting to be a part of those communities.”

Wolfe eventually became the insider he never imagined he’d be, causing no little ambivalence on his own part. He’s up there on the wall of the Gershwin Theatre with the select members of the American Theater Hall of Fame. He was even declared a “Living Landmark” by the New York City Landmarks Conservancy.

“There were times where a kind of symbiosis occurred,” he said. “There were other times where I felt on the outside of that. And then I think just at one point, I just let go of all of that. The journey that you go on, that which upsets you or enrages you, after a while it just becomes unnecessary. There are these wonderful moments where I catch myself and I find myself sort of humbled – a word I don’t use often – humbled by the journey that I’ve gone on and the work I’ve gotten to do.”

There’s another scene in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom that’s not in the original show’s script, and it opens the film. The camera follows two young people running with great urgency through a forest. I’m sure I wasn’t alone in anticipating that something unspeakable was about to happen, or had happened.

Instead, the runners come upon a clearing with a line of people waiting to enter a great tent. Inside, people are dancing, swaying, necking or just listening as Ma Rainey moans the blues. I told Wolfe I’d felt scared at first, and I could see him nodding on my monitor.

“I’m glad you were terrified, I’m glad you were surprised,” he said. “Kentucky, where I’m from, was segregated the first six or eight years of my life. But there’s also a Black university there. I wanted to dismantle what we think we know about the South. So I’m playing into sort of a cinematic history. You see two Black people running and you hear a dog bark and you know they’re running from the Klan. Well, no! They’re running to something.” In the play, set entirely at the Chicago recording studio, Ma Rainey’s stardom is a given. For the film, Wolfe found a way to show how, to her fans, her music is much more than a dislocated voice coming through a machine.

“It started with a sense of possibility instead of a sense of threat,” he said. “There are all these notions and thoughts and ideas, which are of course grounded historically in the fact that this was the Jim Crow South. There were record numbers of lynchings. But also, Ma owned two theaters, and she employed people, and she had had 10 shows. She’s coming from a place of power in the segregated South. People built communities and supported one another. Not every Black person was cowering in the corner singing ‘Go down, Moses.’ ”

I ask what he thinks about some Wilson devotees who insist he went too far in reworking the play. He’s not buying it. Ma’s power base in the South is alluded to in the play when she tells her agent and producer that she won’t hesitate to return home if they don’t meet her demands. “So I’m finding that inside the material, I’m not imposing something on it,” Wolfe said. “Hopefully I’m doing it in honor of the source material and I think it is. I’m obsessed with honoring the source. That’s what Jelly is about. Honoring the source.”

And suddenly we’re back to Mr. Jelly Lord/Jelly’s Last Jam and that final Ma Rainey scene in the studio, the scene that Wilson didn’t write. Returning for a second look at it, I nearly fell out of my seat. The white band is playing Levee’s $5 “Baby Let Me Have It All,” with lyrics cobbled together by Wolfe from Wilson’s work (with an assist from Charley Patton, set to Branford Marsalis’ music). It’s the director’s final hat tip to the author of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

“My jelly roll,” the white singer sings, summoning all the Al Jolson he can muster. “My jelly roll.”

Jeremy Gerard got his first pair of press tickets when A Chorus Line opened at New York's Public Theater in 1975. He's covered the performing arts, politics and human rights as a staff writer for The New York Times, New York magazine, Variety, Bloomberg News and other publications.