On this week’s episode of Working, Rumaan Alam spoke with playwright, director, and producer George C. Wolfe, whose new film Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is now available on Netflix. They discussed the work of a director, how Wolfe prepares for a project, and the differences between directing for theater and film. This partial transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Rumaan Alam: You are a Black director. You’re working with the work of a Black playwright. You’re collaborating with a Black screenwriter. You have some of the best-known Black actors working today in the leading performances. You have this extraordinary ensemble of Black performers in the supporting performances. Can you tell me, not just in this cultural moment but broadly speaking, what is the role or the import of Black art in this culture? Is that something that you’re thinking of as you work on a project like this?
George C. Wolfe: I don’t know how anything can be about Blackness and not be about America. I don’t think that’s possible. Since prior to the dawn of this country there were Black people there. There were songs, there were stories, there were truths. Yeah, everybody’s Black [in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom], including August Wilson, but to me, [Chadwick Boseman’s character] Levee is America. Levee is a 32, 34-year-old Black man in 1927 Chicago, but he is metaphorically America. He is a person who has this extraordinary sense of what is possible. He has this dream of what the future can be. He has a vision. He has knowledge about the shifting trends in music. He is very aware of that which is coming next. Then he is haunted by a violence in his past. To me, ultimately, that’s what this story is about. Is it possible for America to have a future without coming to terms with—and healing from, and addressing—the scars of the past?
I think that Black American culture is American culture, which is not to negate its Blackness, but its expanse and its reach is so large, and so deep, and so defining that I don’t think it exists in some kind of bubble. It’s very curious to me that this was the only play of [August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle] canon that’s not set in Pittsburgh. It’s the only one that is based on a real character. It’s the only one that has a LBGTQ character. It’s about that journey North. It’s about what happened to those rhythms and to those people and to the culture that they’re coming from when they left the South and joined the North. Then all the rest of the plays are set in Pittsburgh. In many respects, this is kind of a prologue even though I think it’s the third or fourth play in the cycle.
The specificity of me being from Frankfurt, Kentucky, and being the age I am and all that other stuff—some aspects of that apply to this story and some aspects of it don’t. The same thing when I directed Angels in America on Broadway: I’m not a Mormon, but I understand other dynamics, and other pieces of me were at play. That play is specifically set in a very particular time in this country, but it’s about America. It’s about the soul and core of America.
I think really great writing speaks to the specificity, but it also speaks to the expanse. I remember very specifically I did this production of Spunk, which is three short stories by Zora Neale Hurston, and it opened up at the Public Theater, and it went to London, and it ended up at the Mark Taper Forum in L.A. I was leaving that stage one time and this Asian woman who looked to be in her 60s stopped me and said to me, “Are you connected with this?” I said, “Yes I am.” She went on to explain the first story, which is called “Sweat,” and she explained it: how the woman can work really hard, and she can be with a man who doesn’t appreciate the value. She went on and told the story back to me as she understood it. She completely and totally had found herself inside of something that did not look like her and did not operate from rhythms that were her own. To me, that piece was all about the power dynamics between men and women and the search for some equation of equality. Was it possible in relationships?
She found herself inside of this thing, and I think that’s the wonder of great writing and great storytelling. The potency of the details, when informed by eloquence of language and depth of understanding about the human condition, becomes something that hopefully empowers anybody who’s in the presence of it.