Latin Heat: Exclusive: Screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson on The Power of ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’

By Justina Bonilla

The highly anticipated Netflix film Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom makes its way from its stunning stage production by “The American Shakespeare” August Wilson, to the TV screen with the artistic discipline of Tony Award-winning actor, director, playwright, and screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson.

Ruben Santiago-Hudson (Photo Credit: OWN)

Santiago-Hudson was born in Lackawanna, New York. He has performed on the stage in numerous productions including Seven Guitars; television (Billions, Lackawanna Blues, The West Wing); and film (Selma, American Gangster). Both his Tony Award win for Best Featured Actor in Seven Guitars and his Tony Award nomination for best direction for Jitney were for his work in Wilson’s plays.   

From a young age, Santiago-Hudson developed a love and passion for the theatre. Santiago-Hudson remembered, “I fell in love with theatre at a very early age. Second grade, I did my first play that I remember. And every year [after that], I wanted that feeling again. I wanted to learn lines, and have people laugh, cry and clap.”

After years of professional acting, Santiago-Hudson started to write and direct plays. During this time, he would go on to write and star in his critically acclaimed one-man off-Broadway play turned HBO film, Lackawanna BluesLackawanna Blues follows the dramatized life story of a young Santiago-Hudson and the boarding house of colorful characters who helped shape him, focusing on the influence his primary caregiver Miss. Rachael, best known as Nanny, had on him.

Santiago-Hudson revealed, “Basically what I was doing, I was telling the story of the woman who sacrificed so much for me, and given me the appetence, the confidence, the love, the support to go out and make something useful of myself in the world.” Further elaborating, “I wanted to write something to pay respect and to say thank you to her, and all the women in our communities that hold our communities together, the rock and the foundation of our communities.”

August Wilson (Photo Credit: David Cooper)

Wilson is Santiago-Hudson’s favorite playwright. In sharing his love and admiration for Wilson’s work, Santiago-Hudson says it’s in part due to his portrayal of, “The reality and celebration of African American life. He takes a common man and puts a crown on him, and makes him more than worthy and whole, and complete as a human being, with the fragilities and power that human beings can have. Whereas other writers, particularly White writers, don’t seem to have any love for any people of color. They just use you as an interesting device in their plays for the most part. But, August loves you. And you can feel the love for his characters when you read his plays, or you perform his plays, or direct them.” 

His favorite Wilson play? “Right now, the one that has my heart in a big way, is Jitney. Because I took Jitney to Broadway and completed the ten-play cycle of Broadway plays.” It was a ten-year journey to complete this. Wilson is the first American playwright to write a play set in each decade from the 20th century, about the African American experience, including Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, set in the 1920’s.

Adapting the iconic Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom script from the stage to the screen, Santiago-Hudson says he first focuses on pictures, elaborating on how, “A film is just motion pictures, which is pictures in motion. So, I got to create pictures,” he explains. “What pictures do I want to tell a story with? I try to take words, and [think] how do I set them into pictures, instead of just doing all the words? [Then] you start editing, but you don’t edit out the heart and soul of the movie, you just put it in a different way. So, let me show this, instead of saying this.”

Santiago-Hudson is quick to emphasize, “But more than anything, you have to honor the script. The script you are taking in as an adaptation must be honored, and put first of all in the most proper, powerful place, and then build on that.”

Netflix Poster

In regards to the responsibility of writing the screenplay for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Santiago-Hudson revealed that “Yes, there was a lot of anxiety. There was a lot of anticipation. I wanted to get it right because I wanted to pay respect to a mentor of mine, a colleague, a peer, a person that I have great love for, August Wilson. Also at the same time, I gotta please Denzel [Washington] the producer, I gotta please George C. Wolfe the director, I gotta please August Wilson, I gotta please Netflix, and somewhere in there, I gotta be happy. That’s a lot of people to make happy.”

In the screenplay Santiago-Hudson preserved Wilson’s dialogue, asserting that, “August [wrote] those words. I did not write those words. I wrote more visuals and things I wanted to see. I was adamant about not rewriting his words. I had to write to make the play flow, but not much.”

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom follows the rising tension in a Chicago recording session for “The Mother of the Blues”, Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) and her band, which includes the young and driven trumpet player Levee (Chadwick Boseman). Davis starred in Wilson’s previous play which was also adapted to film, Fences. She won the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her performance.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is also the last onscreen performance Boseman completed before his tragic death in August of this year.

When describing both the performances of Davis and Boseman, Santiago-Wilson profoundly felt that each represented, “Integrity. Integrity is the thing I enjoyed the most. Because talent is easy to almost have a measuring stick on. But integrity, that’s something that you exude. You exude that it matters to you, that you’re not going to let these people fall short of anything — all the gifts that are innate in humanity. If it’s a part of humanity and you hold on tight to it, double fisted, you have integrity.”

In Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, an essential prop to the story was Levee’s new shoes. Though the shoes being yellow were a way to have them stand out in the film, Santiago-Hudson notes, “The shoes [represent] status. The shoes [represent] wanting to do better and wanting to feel good about yourself. A black man in the 1920s with new shoes and a new hat. That’s saying something.”

(L to R) Michael Potts as Slow Drag, Chadwick Boseman as Levee, and Colman Domingo as Cutler.
(Photo Credit: David Lee / Netflix)

Santiago-Hudson made two noted additions to Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Levee’s mismatched clothes, and the bolted door. “If you notice the way [Levee] is dressed,” Santiago-Hudson pointed out, “I wrote this in the screenplay, he has his jacket, pants, and vest — they don’t match. He’s country boy clean. Opposed to a city boy clean — [who] would have the jacket, pants, and vest match.”

As for the bolted door, Santiago-Hudson explained, “The door not being able to open throughout the movie until the end, it was the confinement. The closing in of the walls. [It’s] the metaphor for the way they have treated people of color in this country. They have closed us in. They gave us limitations on how we can travel, where we can travel, how high we could strive to achieve. It’s always ceilings and doors and walls around us. So, I wanted to create a combustible atmosphere that can explode. And finally, at the end when [Levee] wanted air bad, and space bad, the door finally opened, and he went out. And what did he see? Walls. So, there is no escape.”

In the future, if other Wilson plays are to be adapted for the screen Santiago-Hudson would want to be a part of it. “Anything they throw my way, I would love to do it. More than anything, even more than that, I would love to direct one. It would be a dream come true for me. I hope they will give me an opportunity,” he mused.

As for the experience for the audience, Santiago-Ruben hopes audiences will, “First of all, I want to be fully engaged and entertained. I want people to be able to get rid of all the ills that’s going on around them, and give themselves to a very wonderful story and event”.

He concludes, “Second of all, I want people to really feel that they, in watching Ma Rainey navigate this country, in her situation — I want people to understand that they have power. Power is nothing if you can’t acknowledge, or are unaware that you have it. I’d love people to see that, particularly people of color, know that we do have power, and we are worthy of the space and time that we have on this Earth, at all times unapologetically.”

Featured photo credit: Netflix/OWN


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