The Seattle roots of Chadwick Boseman’s final movie

With ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,’ the ‘Black Panther’ star achieved his long-standing dream to appear in a drama by local theater legend August Wilson.

Chadwick Boseman, center, as Levee in the new film "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," with Michael Potts as Slow Drag, left, and Colman Domingo as Cutler. Originally a play, the story was written by Seattle theater legend August Wilson. (David Lee/Netflix)

In the fall of 2004, a striving young theater artist grabbed the chance to meet one of his idols.

A friend had invited Chadwick Boseman, then a relatively unknown actor, to watch a Broadway rehearsal of Seattle-based playwright August Wilson’s newest drama, Gem of the Ocean. Boseman eagerly accepted.

During a rehearsal break, a nervous Boseman spoke briefly with the illustrious but sometimes shy Wilson, telling him how much he loved and was inspired by the dramatist’s work.  

A year later, Wilson would succumb to cancer at Swedish Hospital, just after completing the 10 plays in his Century Cycle (aka The Pittsburgh Cycle) portraying the 20th century Black American experience. “What can be said about an artist who makes it his life’s work to complete a project and then passes when that work is done?” Boseman later wrote, in a heartfelt tribute to the playwright published in the Los Angeles Times in 2013.

Sadly, those words would ring true of Boseman, too. In the summer of 2019, the by-then famous 43-year-old star of the Marvel smash hit Black Panther would cap off his own remarkable career (which included play and film script credits) with a searing performance in the new film treatment of Wilson’s breakthrough play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. The second work in the Century Cycle to be brought to the screen by executive producer Denzel Washington (after the much-praised Fences), Ma Rainey debuts on Netflix on Dec. 18.

A year after filming wrapped, Boseman died following a long bout with colon cancer. Like Wilson, he had kept his illness a closely held secret from colleagues and the public and focused on completing his own life’s work.

Chadwick Boseman stars as trumpet player Levee in the new film version of Seattle playwright August Wilson's "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," Boseman's final movie. (David Lee/Netflix)

With his portrayal of Levee, a volatile trumpet player in legendary blues singer Ma Rainey’s band, Boseman came full circle. He finally achieved a long-standing dream to appear in a Wilson drama — a dream that took root when, at age 10, his older brother brought home a tape of James Earl Jones performing in the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Fences. Boseman recalled it as the first time he had experienced “something written that captured the richness of how people I knew spoke.”

And with Boseman’s combustive performance in Ma Rainey, opposite such seasoned Wilson actors as Viola Davis and Glynn Turman, he has likely extended the playwright’s impact into future generations: His celebrity means his legion of younger fans may discover Wilson’s mythic and vital tales for the first time.

“More people will be exposed to August’s work through this film,” agrees Constanza Romero, Wilson’s widow and literary executor. Still based in Seattle, the accomplished costume designer is also a producer of Ma Rainey. “With that comes the huge responsibility to present the piece with the excellence August always brought to the table,” she says.

One aspect of that excellence was the casting of Boseman as the pivotal character, Levee.

Chadwick Boseman, most famous for his portrayal of T'Challa in box office hit "Black Panther," reportedly recorded his searing final performance in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" while undergoing chemotherapy. (David Lee/Netflix)

Romero says she and Wilson had a nickname for the cadre of talented actors capable of delivering his gritty, poetic, highly musical language with ease and power: “Wilson Warriors” (including such luminaries as Denzel Washington, Angela Bassett and Samuel L. Jackson). Boseman joined their ranks after participating in a 2013 reading of Gem of the Ocean (the final play in the series) for a public radio audio documentation of the entire Century Cycle. He was recommended for the gig by his mentor, noted actress-director Phylicia Rashad, who had directed Gem of the Ocean at Seattle Repertory Theatre in 2007.

“Afterward I went up to Chadwick and said, ‘Oh my God, that was fantastic! We have to get you to do another Wilson play!’” Romero recalls. “He said, ‘Anytime, anywhere.’ Years later, when I saw him on the Ma Rainey set it was great — like, ‘You’re here! We finally did it!’”

Expertly helmed by director George C. Wolfe and faithfully adapted for the screen by longtime Wilson Warrior Ruben Santiago-Hudson, the new film version of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a gripping take on Wilson’s breakthrough 1982 play. The story imagines a 1927 recording session fraught with racial, artistic and personal tensions.

In a commanding turn, Davis portrays a fictional version of real-life Jazz Age pioneer Gertrude “Ma” Rainey — the “Mother of the Blues.” Padded and heavily made up with the kind of stagey greasepaint the singer favored, Davis presents an imposing diva who rebels against the white music industry’s exploitation of Black artists by issuing a stream of delays and demands.

As she makes the record company execs sweat, her musicians hang out and wait in the Chicago studio. The older players take it all in stride. But the edgy, ambitious Levee mocks their stoicism, talks up his own talents and ultimately reveals a childhood trauma of soul-scarring racism in a blistering monologue delivered by Boseman with anguished ferocity.

The actor may be best known for his heroic movie roles: baseball trailblazer Jackie Robinson in 42. Civil rights champion and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in Marshall. The righteous T’Challa, king of Wakanda, in Black Panther. But the way Boseman portrays Levee is closer to his explosive turn as turbulent soul singer James Brown, in Get on Up — another musician who rose above childhood agonies in the segregated South through his outsize talent and combative personality.

As the film builds to its shattering climax, Boseman seems to embody all the Levees of the world — the embittered artists who entertained the masses but didn’t reap the benefits. And whose oppression, in this case, triggers a harrowing act of violence.

“It’s a very challenging character,” reflects Romero. “When an actor says yes to playing Levee, he can’t take it lightly.”

With his performance in the Denzel Washington-produced film "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," starring Viola Davis (left) and directed by George C. Wolfe (center), Chadwick Boseman achieved a long-standing dream to appear in a drama by playwright August Wilson. (David Lee/Netflix)

Romero is pleased with the Netflix production, which is drawing excellent reviews and Oscar buzz. She’s deeply committed to seeing all the other Century Cycle plays filmed, too, with the same level of rigor and quality. (The next one may be The Piano Lesson, though the pandemic has complicated plans.)

From her home base in Seattle, where Wilson was a prominent but low-key local celebrity during his 15-year residence, Romero is also focused on education. “I’ve been speaking a lot about how important it is for actors to train, and train well for the Wilson plays,” she notes. “One avenue for that is the August Wilson Monologue Competition in high schools.”

The annual contest attracts teenage actors from around the U.S. who study and perform speeches from Wilson’s canon. The prize: appearing at the August Wilson Theatre on Broadway. (The next Seattle semifinals, presented by Seattle Repertory Theatre, will likely be produced virtually, due to the pandemic.) Giving Voice, a new Netflix documentary film about the competition, is a worthy companion piece to Ma Rainey.

Romero is happy to see a new generation experience Wilson’s words and characters — not only those who may one day become professional actors, but also future audience members for his plays.

While Boseman didn’t have the opportunity to fully inhabit a Wilson character until the end of his career, he sensed the power of the playwright’s words even as a 10-year-old, when he heard that scene from Fences. “Filling one’s nostrils with the emotionally charged breath to recite an August Wilson monologue can be transformative,” he wrote in his LA Times piece.

What a gift it would have been to see this captivating and versatile actor go on to play other celebrated Wilson roles: blues singer Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton in Seven Guitars; or Boy Willie, obsessed with selling his family’s beloved heirloom in The Piano Lesson.

Reportedly undergoing chemotherapy while filming Ma Rainey, Boseman may have suspected this could be his last chance to bring to vivid life one of his idol’s indelible creations. Fortunately for us, he made the most of his last battle as a Wilson Warrior.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Misha Berson

Misha Berson

Misha Berson was the chief theatre critic for The Seattle Times for 25 years, now working as a freelance writer and teacher.