It’s a collaboration that was decades in the making. George C. Wolfe, who has helped bring the words of everyone from Tony Kushner to Nora Ephron to life in acclaimed productions, says it was in the mid-1990s when playwright August Wilson first raised the prospect of working with him.
“He said, ‘I want you to direct one of my plays,’” Wolfe recalls. “And I said, ‘Let me read it so I can make sure I have something to offer.’ He said, ‘Well, I haven’t written it yet.’”
Considering both are legends of the theater, it’s odd that it has taken this long for Wolfe and Wilson to come together, and that their long-gestating partnership is taking place not in their more familiar medium of the stage but on film. Wolfe is directing Netflix’s adaptation of Wilson’s second play, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” which hits the streaming service on Dec. 18 and is expected to be a major awards season player. The film stars Viola Davis in the title role, as a showstopping blues legend (complete with gold teeth) and features an electric turn by Chadwick Boseman in his final role. When it comes to writer and director, the project plays to both artists’ strengths. For Wilson, who died in 2005, those trademarks include beautiful, visceral language and an unflinching look at the Black experience. And Wolfe brings his specialties, coaxing stunning performances from the leads and delivering an interpretation that both understands and elevates the playwright’s themes of the corrosive effects of racial discrimination.
Wolfe was born in 1954 in Frankfurt, Ky., far from the lights of Broadway, but he can’t remember a time when he wasn’t drawn to theater. “I was obsessed,” Wolfe notes. “I think it was in a past life or something.” He did his share of school plays and, around the age of 15, a summer theater program, which was a major gateway drug for the budding artist. From there, he attended Pomona College in Los Angeles County, where he earned a BA in theater, and, later, New York University, where he earned an MFA in dramatic writing and musical theater.
From the start, Wolfe had range, both in his abilities and the genres he tackled. He was writing and directing everything from searing dramas to musicals, and that refusal to be pigeonholed continues today. He was nominated for Tony Awards in 2018 and 2019, first for directing Eugene O’Neill’s tragic “The Iceman Cometh” and then for the raucous Nathan Lane-headlined “Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus,” a comedy overflowing with fart jokes and double entendres.
Says Wolfe of those early years, “I wanted to put myself into rooms where I didn’t know all the rules. I knew that if I did that, I would end up with muscles that I didn’t have.” And then, he adds, “I wanted to do something completely different from the room I’d just been in. And one of the most liberating things you can do as an artist is to go into a room where you don’t know everything. And that’s how you keep growing.”
After penning 1986’s Off-Broadway “The Colored Museum” and winning an Obie for directing 1990’s “Spunk,” Wolfe made his Broadway debut writing and directing 1991’s “Jelly’s Last Jam,” about the life of jazz musician Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe, aka Jelly Roll Morton. (Interestingly, before producer Margo Lion hired Wolfe to start from scratch, she hired Wilson to take a pass at the story — something Wolfe learned only later.)
After the success of “Jelly’s Last Jam,” Wolfe says he was “offered anything that was connected to any Black person ever.” But always wanting to do something different from before, he chose to “jump into a seven-hour play that had already been heralded as a masterpiece” with the Broadway premiere of Tony Kushner’s two-part epic “Angels in America.” Wolfe states that he didn’t have the luxury of being intimidated. “A famous producer said to me, ‘Well, if it doesn’t work, it’s going to be your fault,’” he recalls with a laugh. “I asked myself, how do I do this? What do I do? And then I got it: You do it one scene at a time. One moment at time.” The play, of course, was a massive, epoch-defining hit, landing Wolfe the first of his three Tony Awards, for directing part one, “Millennium Approaches.”
Kushner also wrote the book and lyrics for the musical “Caroline, or Change,” which Wolfe directed in its 2003 Off-Broadway and 2004 Broadway run. Kushner says Wolfe is astounding to see at work. “One of the great things about being a playwright is when you’re in rehearsal, people are talking about what you’ve written, and they’ll say things, and you suddenly think, ‘Oh, that’s what I meant to do. Right, that’s what this character is,’” reveals Kushner. “When George talks to you about the world you’re trying to help him create, he says these breathtaking things. I’ve incorporated some of them into the scripts I’ve worked on him with because he’s one of the smartest and most eloquent people on the planet.”
In “Caroline,” the lead character is a Black maid in 1963 who interacts with various appliances — a washing machine, a dryer, a radio — as if they are people. When an actor asked how to “play” an inanimate object, Kushner says he listened as Wolfe explained. “He said that before there were machines, there were slaves, and the slaves are what did the work that we now have machines do,” Kushner reveals. “So these machines are haunted by the spirits of slaves. And of course, I thought, ‘Fuck, I wish I’d thought of that.’ It’s so smart, and it gives these actors so much to work with.”
The director is effusive when speaking about the performers with whom he has collaborated over the years. “I love, love, love working with actors,” says Wolfe, who has had cameos in films like “The Devil Wears Prada.” He adds, “I started as an actor, but I have too many control issues, so that was never going to work. I think they’re brave people who give themselves to roles and take off their clothes and coverings and gold.” The feeling is mutual. Says “Ma Rainey’s” Davis, “George is both intuitive and hands on. He has a fantastic eye for actors and knows when to trust them and when to come in and redirect. He also can give a word that opens up a wellspring of emotions that can completely release you. He is an artist.”
Davis won an Academy Award for her role in “Fences,” another Wilson adaptation, directed by and starring Denzel Washington. Washington had been asked by Wilson’s widow and executor of his estate, Constanza Romero, about bringing Wilson’s 10 plays, generally referred to as the August Wilson Century Cycle or The Pittsburgh Cycle, to the screen. Wolfe was directing Washington in the 2018 Broadway revival of “The Iceman Cometh” when the pair began seriously discussing Wolfe directing “Ma Rainey.” “I don’t remember deciding to do it, like you don’t remember being born,” says Wilson.
Wolfe brought on Ruben Santiago-Hudson to write the screenplay. Santiago-Hudson had a long history with Wolfe, beginning with appearing in “Jelly’s Last Jam.” It was Wolfe who, during his 11-year tenure as artistic director of The Public Theater, commissioned Santiago-Hudson to write the autobiographical “Lackawanna Blues” about his former nanny. And it was Wolfe who directed the 2005 HBO film adaptation. Santiago-Hudson says Wolfe was the “perfect” director. “I knew he would make a remarkable film. I also knew he would have great notes and guidance on the script,” Santiago-Hudson says. “Of his many attributes, his vision and artistic sensibilities, his love of African American life, his leadership and clarity, as well as his preparation and collaborative skills, are impeccable.”
he upcoming version of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” largely unfolds on a single day in 1927 Chicago where band members wait in a recording studio for the star of the show. As they pass the time, the men reminisce, preen and share big dreams, particularly trumpet player Levee (Boseman) whose arrogance and swagger belie a painful past. And even when Ma Rainey arrives, things don’t go smoothly. Davis, who put on 20 pounds for the role and dons makeup that seems to be melting off her face, calls Ma Rainey “a behemoth of a character.” She is unapologetic in challenging and demanding respect from her manager and producer, two white men profiting off her talent. Tensions run high throughout the day, and to accentuate this, Wolfe moved the setting of the play from winter to summer as, he notes, “heat became a character in the film.”
Wolfe dug into the script; he found it fascinating that it is Wilson’s only play set not in Pittsburgh but Chicago, at a time when thousands of Black people were making their way north. “I think he’s doing this treatise about the adverse dynamics of the Great Migration. And the consequences of what happens when people leave the rural South for the urban North,” Wolfe says. “In the South, were they able to create structures on their own because of the rigidity of segregation? They’re able to create their own internal economic and spiritual and cultural structures in order to survive. They’re coming to New York, where they can do the same thing. But at the same time, if they want to achieve another level of business opportunity, they’re going to have to come into contact with white power structures.” And when it came to the character of Ma Rainey, a Black woman not dependent upon anybody else, he wondered: “What happens if someone shows up with a sense of power that is separate from the power structure she comes into contact with?”
In adapting a play, there is often the common refrain that one needs to “open it up” for the big screen. “That phrase is tattooed on my forehead,” Wolfe jokes. And while he certainly has made a film that looks and feels spectacularly colorful and lively, he also chose to play up the literal restrictions of the rehearsal room to reinforce the metaphorical ones. “In some respects, that band room is about confinement,” he notes. “So therefore, those walls become crucial. The band goes down those steps and tell their stories about glorious and not-so-glorious things that have happened. So I actually had to figure out what the strength is of that confinement.”
Wolfe’s experience behind the camera also includes “The Immortal Lives of Henrietta Lacks” for HBO and the films “Nights in Rodanthe” and “You’re Not You,” but “Ma Rainey’s” aura is the work of an auteur from top to bottom. “This really feels like George coming into his own as a film director,” raves Kushner, who also praises the actors. “Viola Davis, I’ve never seen a performance like that — the layers of grief and rage. There is no better director for actresses than George; he really brings out everybody’s innards.”
“Ma Rainey” demonstrates another of Wolfe’s hallmarks: He put together a flawless ensemble, largely composed of actors he had worked with in the theater, such as Michael Potts, Colman Domingo and Glynn Turman, who play the other band members. For Levee, Wolfe needed someone who could play charismatic and intelligent but emotionally immature. “He has the makings of greatness but is haunted by his past,” he notes. In casting Boseman, he knew he had the right actor. “And in addition to bringing all of that, he was a brilliantly skilled actor, thoughtful and completely invested in the material,” says Wolfe.
The movie was shot on a 30-day schedule in summer 2019, and Wolfe says the shoot could be tough, but it was also joyous. He was still editing the film when Boseman died on Aug. 28 from colon cancer at the age of 43. Wolfe was stunned; he had no idea Boseman was ill and says he and the actor had even exchanged other scripts for projects they could work on together in the future.
Boseman has earned raves for his volcanic turn as Levee, with many critics saying his last performance might be his best. And while Wolfe is devastated that the actor died so young, he says he is grateful for the time they spent together, their conversations and their collaboration. “I feel blessed by the performance, blessed by getting to know him and exhilarated by the work, by this astonishing performance,” he states. “So yes, there’s sadness, but there’s all these other qualities that I find, ultimately, empowering. Working with him felt empowering, and the work that’s on the screen is empowering.”