Meet the August Wilson Expert Who Wrote ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ for the Screen

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
Courtesy of David Lee/Netflix

Audiences won’t see Ruben Santiago-Hudson on screen in the new Netflix adaptation of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” but theater fans can rest assured that the writer-actor-director — one of the foremost interpreters of playwright August Wilson’s work — had a major hand in shifting the story from the stage to the screen. He penned the screenplay, which streamlines and reimagines the two-act play into a fleet, 94-minute movie that stars Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman.

Listen to this week’s “Stagecraft” podcast below:

His familiarity with Wilson’s work, and his long friendship and collaboration with the man himself, made his job both easier and more difficult, he explained on the new episode of Stagecraft, Variety’s theater podcast. “Some of my favorite speeches didn’t make it [into the movie],” he said, adding that he always asked himself: “‘Do we need it? Is it too much fat? Let’s get to the lean meat.’ But sometimes the fat is what makes it taste good!”

For Santiago-Hudson, the challenge lay in finding new, cinematic ways to balance out some of the language he was forced to cut. “If I’m going to remove something that made August incredible — his language — what do I replace it with? I replace it with pictures. Let’s replace it with Romare Bearden collages. Let’s replace it with William H. Johnson’s images…If we’re going to take this beauty out of it, this muscularity, this mellifluous storytelling, what do we replace it with? Mellifluous storytelling, visually. That’s what I replaced words with.”

One of the most noticeable shifts in the screenplay is the fact that Ma Rainey, who in the play doesn’t appear until well into the first act, arrives much earlier on screen. “I knew that I had to create an aura that was not in the play,” Santiago-Hudson said of Davis’ role. “Ma Rainey comes in on page 48 of a 102-page play. Ma Rainey in our movie came in at page one. The first thing you hear is the thing that was her God’s gift, the thing that was her most powerful aspect: Her voice…I wanted to put you in her temple, which was the show tent [where she performed]. Show her in her power.”

Like all the works in Wilson’s 10-play cycle, “Ma Rainey” is historical fiction, but Santiago-Hudson has a clear explanation for why Wilson’s writing remains as relevant today as when it was written. “The situation that Black America finds itself in is the same situation that Ma was in in 1927, the same situation Loomis was in down there in 1911 in ‘Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,’ the same situation as Solly Two Kings, trying to free his people and trying to fight for dignity, integrity and freedom in 1906 in ‘Gem of the Ocean.’ Our problems remain visceral and the same in a lot of ways.”

Also in the new episode of Stagecraft, Santiago-Hudson got excited about the Broadway-bound new production of his play “Lackawanna Blues,” talked about code-switching in the American theater, and admitted that he doesn’t actually know every single line of every single August Wilson play –just most of them.

To hear to the full conversation, listen at the link above, or download and subscribe to Stagecraft on podcast platforms including Apple PodcastsSpotify, and the Broadway Podcast NetworkNew episodes of “Stagecraft” are released every other week.