How George C. Wolfe Brought His Broadway Magic to ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’

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Photo Source: David Lee/Netflix

George C. Wolfe is well aware that people—actors, especially—come with baggage. He only requests that it never looms larger than their talent. “You have to have an overnight bag instead of a trunk,” he says with a laugh. “How about a little carry-on? You put everything in there.”

It should come as little surprise that Wolfe is willing to work with complexity, having spent much of his Tony-winning career unmasking messiness—knowing well that beneath said mask is often just more mess. It’s visible in the morally ambiguous souls that populate “The Wild Party,” “Shuffle Along,” “The Iceman Cometh,” and the original Broadway production of “Angels in America,” to name a few. His job, as he sees it, has always been to lean into characters’ humanity rather than shy away from their ugliness.

His latest muse is the titular singer of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” August Wilson’s play set during a single session at a 1920s Chicago recording studio. He directed a film adaptation for Netflix, which premieres Dec. 18. That Ma is played by Viola Davis doesn’t hurt. 

“Ma Rainey, as August has crafted her, is a really fascinating character, just in the sense that she’s ferociously smart, she’s an out lesbian, and she sings about it,” Wolfe says of the project, which, like 2016’s “Fences,” is produced by Denzel Washington. “She’s the boss; she’s not apologetic for being the boss. Viola, in addition to being a gloriously skilled, emotional actor, is very smart and outspoken, and has a commanding presence and a warmth and a spirit and a power that’s glorious to be in.”

READ: Viola Davis on How to Portray a Real Person

While many proclaim themselves to be an “actor’s director,” Wolfe doesn’t have to say it for it to be true. Whether in the audition room or on set, in rehearsal for a stage musical or a feature film, he knows a performer already has the key to the material. All he has to do is help them turn it. 

“Almost as important to me as talent is how [actors’] minds work—how they think about the character, how they think about people,” he explains. “I’m digging: What secrets do they know as human beings? Not secrets about themselves, but what they understand about people. I’m perpetually looking for how actors’ talent and mind and emotions interconnect.”

For that same reason, Wolfe has a rule that he will never tell an actor no. Whatever impulse they’re acting from, even if it is not yet a fully realized choice, stems from an innate connection. To stifle it would be to stifle the truth and their whole performance. Instead, he asks questions—many, many questions. 

“It doesn’t matter so much to me what the answers are. It’s to engage them in the rigor of digging underneath the thought. I also think one of the crucial things that a director does is make an actor feel safe about the journey that they’re about to go on,” he says. “There are two schools of directing: You stand where you are and demand actors come to you, or you go to where actors are and, over the course of the process, between takes, you convince them to come in the direction you think they need to come in.”

READ: How to Become a Theater Director

Wolfe is dynamic enough to know which principle to apply and when. In “Ma Rainey,” for example, his work with the late Chadwick Boseman fell firmly into the latter. “We did a number of Chadwick’s monster scenes that last week. Afterward, he would be physically exhausted because of the demands of the role and the stakes,” he recalls. “And he’d just be outside the band room on these steps, resting, and he’d see me coming. I got to know that he’d gesture if you could come up closer to him to give him the notes. And I’d spout at him and he’d go, ‘Uh-huh,’ and then we’d go again. It’s building confidence, trust.” 

Establishing that trust can take time, and no two actors are alike when it comes to their methods for doing so. (He recalls, for example, that during the 2018 Broadway revival of “The Iceman Cometh,” he never gave a group note after a performance, instead opting to go to each actor individually to “very, very privately” give feedback.) Trust is, however, the director’s imperative regardless of medium, and it is only in its presence that each piece of storytelling can fall into place. 

“There are dynamics that are, without question, different [between stage and film], but it’s your job to guide people so that everybody from the designers to the actors are working on the same scale. As I began to think about turning the script into a film, I didn’t go through the process of [thinking]: It’s a play. Now I’ve got to make it into a movie,” Wolfe says of “Ma Rainey,” which features a screenplay by Ruben Santiago-Hudson. “That didn’t enter into my brain whatsoever. I just pretended it was supposed to be a film. I dug in and began exploring a visual, visceral language and way of telling the story that would pull the audience in and create a counterpoint to the incredibly rich and detailed language. 

“To me, it’s not about ‘filming,’ ” he adds. “It’s filming a story.”

This story originally appeared in the Dec. 17 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.

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