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Though some of the disagreements among the band members stem from prosaic matters, much of the conflict in the studio is rooted in the racism of the era. Even when the musicians criticize one another’s style, musically or otherwise, they are really wrestling with their place in the country as Black men. When Toledo mocks Levee’s ostentatious sartorial choices, he scoffs that “more niggas have got killed trying to have a good time than God got ways to count.” Meanwhile, the white record-label managers treat Ma carelessly, seeing her only as a vehicle for their own profit. They botch her recordings, ignore her requests, and interrupt the band’s studio time. Ma knows that the executives, Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) and Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne), don’t actually value her as a person. “They wanna take your voice and trap it in all them fancy boxes with all them buttons and dials, and then too cheap to buy you a Coca-Cola,” Ma tells Cutler at one point. “They don’t care nothin’ about me. All they want is my voice.”
Along with showcasing her vocal prowess, Wilson’s play imbues the Georgia-born singer with the rebellious spirit that many observed in real life. As the blues scholar Steven C. Tracy wrote in his 1987 essay “A Reconsideration: Hearing Ma Rainey,” “Ma’s southern-drenched voice, echoing the field hollers and folk songs of 16-hour days among turn rows worked so unrelentingly that the laborers could see them in their dreams, had a depth of feeling matched by few other blues singers of her time.” Fittingly, Rainey is played by a southern woman and one of the greatest modern actors: Davis (who won an Oscar for her role in Fences, another Wilson adaptation).
From Ma Rainey’s opening musical performance in the woods, Davis throws all of her artistic gravitas into the portrayal. She moves with calculated swagger and delivers her monologues with rawness and precision. In real life, Rainey was sometimes mocked by northerners for her “country” mannerisms. But as Davis told Vanity Fair, Wilson displayed a deep respect for the speech patterns that came most naturally to southerners such as Rainey and herself. Plus, Davis said, Wilson “lets [Black characters] talk. A lot of times I don’t get to talk. And then sometimes even when I do talk, I’m like, that’s not what I would say.”
The original play premiered as the second in Wilson’s The American Century Cycle, a series of 10 works that each dramatized one decade of Black life in the 20th century. After the concert in the woods, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (the only American Century play set in Chicago) doesn’t have any more scenes in Georgia. But for Wilson, exploring the resistance baked into mundane parts of Black life meant emphasizing the southern sensibilities that Black people held onto even after leaving the region. The Netflix adaptation’s screenwriter, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, sought to preserve Wilson’s interest in conveying the “nobility and courage” of his characters. “Their values, their integrity, the way they do things, their recipes, and the way they worship and courted—I had to keep all that intact,” Santiago-Hudson, a longtime collaborator of Wilson’s and a playwright himself, told me. “The music of August Wilson is his writing. And his writing is exactly what he heard from the people.”