In a career of artistic and commercial triumphs, George C. Wolfe just scored another, this time for LGBTQ people everywhere.
Last year, his film adaptation of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom became a major critical hit, scoring five Academy Award nominations, including nods for Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman. It also brought to light the story of the real-life blues singer Ma Rainey, an openly bisexual Black woman, and a bonafide star of her day.
Adapting the story posed a monumental challenge for Wolfe, in particular, because it focused on a near-forgotten singer in Ma Rainey. In a conversation with Awards Daily, he also addressed the issue of queer erasure, and why he feels compelled to return to those themes.
“Because we don’t know these stories and it’s a shame because in stories and history is our power for surviving the moment that we’re in,” he said. “That’s why it’s important to know these stories. They’re amazing and compelling, but they’re healing.”
He continued, “August Wilson wrote it and it was done on Broadway in 1984, but just the actual fact of Ma Rainey and the dynamics of the creation of Levee, those stories are compelling because he’s a powerful writer, but they’re also about survival. They’re about loss. They’re about things we need to be in touch with. That’s why it’s so important.”
Wolfe knows a lot about captivating an audience in that way. He won his first Tony Award for directing the original Broadway production of Angels in America: Millenium Approaches in 1993.
He scored another directing nomination for helming Part II of the play, Perestroika, the following year. Since then he co-created and directed the Broadway dance musical Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk which told the story of black Americans from the time of slavery until the present.
He also won a Tony for his direction of the musical in 1996. His subsequent work, including Broadway productions of The Normal Heart and Caroline or Change, also focus heavily on themes of queer and African-American identity.
With Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Wolfe has returned to those themes again. We’re proud he has done so with such grace and power. Somewhere, we think Ma Rainey is proud, too.