It’s a glorious moment for devotees of the late, great playwright August Wilson, even with many theaters closed. Netflix has two new Wilson films on offer: a swift, sumptuous version of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and the heartening documentary Giving Voice, about high-school students who discover the thrill and resonance of Wilson’s characters while preparing for a national monologue competition. Together, the films reflect not only on the achievement of Wilson’s American Century Cycle—his 10-play chronicle of Black life in America through each decade of the 20th century—but also on his long-running battle with the conventions of white, Eurocentric drama.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom features two Black artists (in the film, Viola Davis’s eponymous blues singer, Ma, and Chadwick Boseman’s jazz trumpeter, Levee) struggling for a white-dominated music industry in 1920s Chicago to recognize their worth. Much of the play takes place in a subterranean rehearsal room where Rainey’s backup musicians swap stories, boasts, and insults as they debate the prospects of gaining approval from the white executives who control the recording studio upstairs. It was Wilson’s breakthrough play, his first to be accepted in the National Playwrights Conference, in 1982, after five previous scripts were rejected, and his first to be produced on Broadway. Commercial theater was, however, a strange fit for a play that, as the critic Frank Rich noted, has “virtually no story.” Wilson, who wrote poetry before he turned to playwriting, drew inspiration from what he called “the four B’s”—the oral tradition of the blues, the collage art of Romare Bearden, the political engagement of Amiri Baraka, and the metaphysical explorations of Jorge Luis Borges. Wilson produced lyrical, chatty, digressive scripts, rich in African American character, history, and ritual, that didn’t slot neatly into mainstream expectations of a well-made play.
Though it became a Broadway success, Ma Rainey was criticized for lacking a unified structure around a central protagonist whose rising conflict could generate the play’s action. For his next play, Fences, Wilson responded to critics by writing a recognizable, realistic arc for a tragic hero, the baseball slugger turned garbageman Troy Maxson, who could take his place alongside Willy Loman, King Lear, and Oedipus. The play won the 1987 Tony for Best Play and Pulitzer Prize for Drama, earned $12 million on Broadway, and has long been Wilson’s most widely produced work. But having proved his Aristotelian credentials, he returned to loosely structured, spiritually adventurous ensemble riffs in his subsequent plays (Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, The Piano Lesson) even as American theater tried to shoehorn him into forms that were seen as universal—which is to say, more familiar to white producers and audiences. Fences “was not the kind of play I wanted to write,” Wilson told Vanity Fair in 1989. “But all these people who are used to theater kept trying to tell me my work should be something different.”