This week, amid all the hoopla generated by the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the mall in Washington DC, I attended a performance of August Wilson’s first great play about the African-American experience. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, set in a recording studio in jazz-age Chicago, first appeared on Broadway in 1984. It won the New York Drama Critics Circle award, and paved the way for a cycle of ten plays that have won many accolades, including two Pulitzer Prizes.
The timing for this revival (which stars Lillias White) seems auspicious. After several unfortunate years of #Oscarsowhite, some of the hottest films now emerging from end-of-summer film festivals feature slices of black life, past and present. Along with the controversial The Birth of a Nation, critics and audiences have responded to the inspirational Queen of Katwe, the tender Loving, and a brave low-budget indie called Moonlight, among others. Denzel Washington now heads a multi-ethnic cast in a remake of The Magnificent Seven, which tops this week’s box office charts. More pertinent, perhaps, is the fact that Washington directs, as well as stars in, an upcoming screen adaptation of August Wilson’s classic baseball drama, Fences. (His wife is played by the great Viola Davis.) It opens on Christmas Day.
The production of Ma Rainey I just saw was directed by Phylicia Rashad, who has a long string of Broadway acting roles to her credit. Though she’s a Tony winner for a recent revival of the classic A Raisin in the Sun, she’s certainly best remembered by most of us as Clair Huxtable, the loving wife of Bill Cosby’s character on The Cosby Show. This sitcom of course ruled the airwaves from 1984 through 1992. It’s never easy to move on from a long-lasting hit, and I admire Rashad for proving that she can do more than banter with a TV spouse and TV children.
One of many landmark aspects of The Cosby Show was that it helped a nation fall in love with an upper-middle-class African American family. The patriarch played by Cosby was an obstetrician (and also the son of a prominent jazz musician); wife Clair was an attorney. Their five smart, sassy kids kept them hopping, and the nation got a chance to meet black parents who faced the same joys and woes as their white counterparts. So The Cosby Show, though often very funny, was both a comedy and a civics lesson, with dad Cliff Huxtable sometimes the butt of the joke.
How times have changed! We now know (or at least suspect) things about Bill Cosby that aren’t so pleasant. The man we’ve been hearing about lately, from a long list of women with tales of drugging and rape, seems to have taken advantage of his worldly success in ways disturbing to imagine. As a weekly visitor in the nation’s living rooms, he had power, and he apparently used it in unsavory ways.
Which brings me back to August Wilson’s play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Its title character, an actual historical figure, was a jazz great with a following among African-American record-buyers. That’s why her (white) manager and the (white) head of a record label are willing to put up with her shenanigans, which involve showing up late for recording sessions and making outrageous demands. She sasses them, but saves most of her venom for those beneath her, the musical sidemen who back up her singing. Power corrupts, and those on the bottom are the ones who suffer: too bad a self-styled educator named Dr. William Cosby had to teach us that lesson.