Viola Davis as Ma Rainey
Viola Davis’s astonishing transformation into 20’s blues singer Ma Rainey is an act of pure thespian skill that may well earn Davis a second Oscar. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom directed by George C. Wolfe and based on August Wilson’s long running Broadway hit stars Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman. So, who was Ma Rainey? Born Gertrude Pridgett in 1896, and born again as Ma Rainey, she and her husband toured the Chitlin Circuit as Rainey and Rainey, Assassinators of the Blues. Her unique style and attention-grabbing manner and appearance, her insistence on being her true self, she was a feminist, a gay woman, a music pioneer, entrepreneur and, she claimed, inventor of the term “the blues”. Rainey’s music was briefly revived in the sixties when white British rockers covered original blues and soul music created by Blacks in the segregated US. Davis’ commitment to the part is complete, and by changing her appearance, speaking voice, movements, and singing that low down style, recreates an iconic legendary figure. What She Said’ Anne Brodie attended a press event with Davis.
On Becoming Ma
The only thing I did differently, the only thing different is the time I channeled a lot of things, like my Aunt Joyce. She’d come into the house like she’s the most beautiful woman in the world, like its her house. My Dad would say get your ass out of my house! She’d wear the latest fashions. She was 300 lbs and I believed she was the most beautiful women in the world. I channeled being a black-skinned girl in America, being called ugly, a lot of things I channel for Ma.
The story’s as America and apple pie and individualism. What’s timeless is that (August Wilson) writes humanity, and it doesn’t run out of time. Uta Hagen says the number one mistake actors make is thinking that time changes behaviour. Like, if its set in a different time period, do everything differently. Audiences protect themselves from experiencing work by stacking it.
I identify with her in many ways, but not her sexuality. Ma listens to the voice inside her. When her career was over, she bought her mum’s house in Columbus Georgia and bought a theatre where black actors performed. She had an entrepreneur’s mindset and she was a woman before her time. Any feminist of today would have called her liberated within the confines of people telling her who she should be.
The only thing you’re trying to get at it the truthmaking it believable that’s it. I just want to be as honest and truthful and believable as possible, connecting it to my gut, I do the same thing on stage process is absolutely the same.
Chadwick Boseman and Viola Davis in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
On Chadwick Boseman
Brilliant actors bring the discovery of joy, invite me into the joy. Chadwick (Boseman) created such a sense of joy about singing, (his character’s) shoes, shoe is, flirting with Jessie May so when he makes perilous decisions, you feel it when they take things away from him. There is a dearth of artists who could create such a powerful human being.
Chadwick has such charm and intelligence such an actor of extraordinary charisma, that was the main thing, lush and beautiful. Everything that Chadwick did was brilliant, I loved him raging at God, it’s just something you don’t see. Its as private as people get, like on screen sex and getting naked. Nobody wants to rage at God, but everyone experiences it. Addicts when they’re asked to give their power over to God say where was God when I was being raped, when my child killed. And this is August who gives you license to rage at big daddy who wasn’t there for me. It just burned a hole through my soul almost hard to watch.
Meryl Streep and Viola Davis in Doubt, 2009.
On Black stories
When I was promoting Doubt, people wanted to know how many stories we wanted to tell. Meryl Streep and I were at the Lincoln Theatre in New York and there were 800 people. And Meryl said, “I don’t know, how many people are in this room?” There are endless amounts of stories, not just people who made it into history books, or something I make up — Willy Foofoo born in 1937. Stories are infinite. Stories that exist only with the zeitgeist ‘now we let black people in” what’s the next biopic we can do? I have endless amounts of stories in me, a story within stories in the deep recesses of imagination and imagination is infinite.