AFRO Review: ‘Ma Rainey’ Masterpiece

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Academy Award winner Viola Davis portrays the trailblazing Blues diva Ma Rainey, also starring the late Chadwick Boseman in his final performance. Boseman, far left, died on Aug. 28 at the age of 43, after a long battle with colon cancer. Netflix’s television adaptation of August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, is now available. (David Lee/Netflix via AP)

By Sean Yoes
AFRO Senior Reporter
syoes@afro.com

Viola Davis is a tour de force as the trailblazing Blues Diva.

August Wilson’s masterpiece, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, was the legendary playwright’s first Broadway production in 1984, his first of many Broadway triumphs depicting the depths and the heights of the Black American odyssey.

Thirty-six years later, Academy Award winning actor and producer Denzel Washington brings Ma Rainey to television via Netflix in a production that is literally setting the dramatic world ablaze.

Wilson’s work, relevant as ever, vibrates even higher perhaps in the context of our current 21st century Black experience and America’s catastrophic racial reckoning.

Academy Award winner Viola Davis, arguably the greatest actor on earth right now, bring’s Rainey to life in all her glory, as she navigated the inglorious racist music industry of the 1920’s.

And the late Chadwick Boseman delivers an incomparable (in the literal sense of the word) performance as he channeled the raging musical genius Levee. It is a virtuoso performance sure to garner him every dramatic prize imaginable posthumously.

Academy Award winner Viola Davis portrays the trailblazing Blues diva Ma Rainey, also starring the late Chadwick Boseman in his final performance. Boseman, far left, died on Aug. 28 at the age of 43, after a long battle with colon cancer. Netflix’s television adaptation of August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, is now available. (David Lee/Netflix via AP)

There have been myriad reviews of Ma Rainey on stages across the country and there will be many more for the television incarnation of Wilson’s work produced by Washington (who also produced and starred in Wilson’s Fences for the big screen) and brought to life by the otherworldly ensemble cast. But, I would like to focus on Boseman’s transcendent performance as Levee; 19 years ago  I had to grapple with the tortured jazz musician on the stage at Baltimore’s Arena Players.

When Levee enters that recording studio in Chicago with his older bandmates and Rainey, he carries with him both a satchel and a head full of elaborate demons born of a monstrous history in the Deep South; a history that saw his mother brutalized by a gang of White men and his father murdered for defending her honor.

Levee’s psyche and spirit remained brutalized from his hellish childhood and he takes it out on God in a way that shocks and scorches the senses of so many who witness his blasphemous venom.

During our editorial planning meeting this week, AFRO managing editor, Rev. Dorothy Boulware asked how a man of faith navigated the spiritual minefield Wilson wrought in his first Broadway play. Short answer: it wasn’t easy. But, I clung to the glimmer of light I saw in Levee; it wasn’t that he didn’t believe in God, he was just enraged with Him for in his mind, turning His back on his mother. And that reality I believe gave me the path to approach Levee with love because I understood his rage. Being born and raised in West Baltimore that was much easier for me to tap into.

Our offering of Ma Rainey at Arena was received well in February 2002. “Also like the blues, the play needs performers who have the “chops,” to borrow a bit of musicians’ lingo. Arena Players’ production could use an occasional boost in tempo, but director Amini Johari-Courts’ cast has the dramatic chops,” wrote Baltimore Sun theater critic J. Wynn Rousuck.

And apparently I didn’t do too bad. “Portrayed by Sean Yoes as dashing, headstrong and blinded by anger, Levee is unwilling to follow the examples of his elders, and unable to constructively channel his anger,” Rousuck wrote.

Yet, it is Boseman who has delivered the definitive Levee and I couldn’t touch the hem of his garment. Frankly, I don’t know if any actor could. There were several moments in his portrayal of the mercurial musician where it seemed the actor tapped into his own imminent demise as he transversed the spaces between heaven and hell to bring Levee to life.

We will all miss Boseman dearly. Thank God we have his work and because of it, he lives.