The Afro-Latino Santiago-Hudson brings the mother of the blues, Ma Rainey, back to life for Netflix
The actor and screenwriter returns to the musical genre with an adaptation of the play Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, which some already anticipate as a clear nominee at the Oscars.
After postponing the release date due to the tragic death of actor Chadwick Boseman, who plays a trumpet player in the film for his last performance and what those involved claim is his best, the celebrated TV adaptation of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom will arrive at Netflix on Dec. 18.
It's a highly-anticipated premiere that features actress Viola Davis as the mother of the blues, Ma Rainey, and Denzel Washington as a producer. The adaptation also represents a great challenge for its actor and playwright Ruben Santiago-Hudson, the son of a Puerto Rican father and an African-American mother, who has been in charge of adapting the award-winning script of August Wilson to a movie.
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom tells of the tensions between the queen of the blues, the musicians in her band and the white record executives who pressure them with a series of delays that explode during the recording of her new album in Chicago of 1927.
It's a work for Santiago-Hudson that means enhancing "being Black, even if you have to show it in a quiet and private way," he clarified at the end of last year in the American Theatre.
The playwright had already worked on the theme by directing another play by Wilson, Jitney, which is about illegal cab drivers in Pittsburgh in the late 70's, and that opened on Broadway in 2017, earning him a Tony nomination.
"In Ma Rainey, when they are in the rehearsal room, their integrity comes out. Then, when they go down to the basement, their true blackness comes out. The way they joke with each other, the anger, the pathos. We rarely get to see that," added the Afro-Latino.
While both Jitney and Ma Rainey explore Black identity and conflict in times of marked racism, the Afro-Latino doesn't forget his dual roots, which he reviewed in his first film, Lackawanna Blues (2005), set in 1960s New York City and featuring his father, a Puerto Rican railroad worker.
Adapting a play that over the years has caused so much expectation, to the point of it becoming a symbol, is not easy. Perhaps that's why a large majority of the team, including Santiago-Hudson and the film's director, George C. Wolfe, have one foot in the theater and the other on Broadway.
In fact, the original production of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, from 1984, had three Tony nominations: "Best Play," "Best Featured Actor" (Charles S. Dutton) and "Best Featured Actress" (Theresa Merritt). Those same expectations are heaped on the in-depth characters played by Boseman and Davis at the Oscars.
However, precedents are not always a guarantee. Sometimes they can be a burden. Like in 2003, when the actress Whoopi Goldberg reincarnated the character of the mother of the blues and the play went almost unnoticed.
Bringing to the stage (or to the set) a play by August Wilson is already doing the world a huge favor. Fences is the prime example, as Denzel Washington and Viola Davis got a Tony for their performances in 2010 and six years later, the actors would take the play to the movies and allowed us to reflect on the double stigma — race and class — that was and is at the base of many conflicts in this country.