It didn’t take actor Colman Domingo long to say yes to the film version of August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”
“I received an offer, a beautiful offer for an iconic role in this incredible August Wilson play,” he remembers. “All I heard was George C. Wolfe was directing, Denzel Washington was producing and Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman were starring, and I said yes, I’d love to be a part.”
In the film version of the celebrated 1982 stage drama — which later went on to win a Tony Award for Best Play — Domingo plays Cutler, the leader of legendary blues singer Ma Rainey’s band. As the band members wait for Ma to arrive for a recording session, personal and professional tensions brim over in the studio as the session goes past its scheduled time and the white producers grow increasingly upset. “Cutler is doing a balancing act between Ma and the establishment, trying to navigate a lot and get the job done that day, the job he had been handed,” Domingo said. “Everyone is coming in with their sort of pressure cookers that day, even Cutler. It’s a hot day and they are trying to get this job done and everything bubbles up and brims over.”
Domingo, who is gay, feels the material holds up beautifully today. Although it was written roughly four decades ago, it feels especially timely. “These characters are dealing with the exact same things they are dealing with now — systemic racism and institution-wide racism, trying to have agency with their talent and voice to make sure it is appreciated and follow what is laid out contractually for you,” he said.
The actor calls playwright Wilson “the black Shakespeare of our time.” “What he wrote was so very relevant,” Domingo said. “Over his ten-play [Pittsburgh] cycle — which spans many decades — you see African-American needs and wants and strives and heartbreaks. It’s fascinating that he did this work. He was an acute listener. With August it’s like a fly on the wall — you get a sneak peek into black lives and black truths.”
Wolfe, who is also gay, was very selective about his actors. “He’s a genius in every way,” says Domingo. “He handpicked each of us to be part of this, and I feel blessed. He is a master director and innovator. He is a great brain trust of African American culture, and I was excited to work with him. He curated the National Center for Civil and Human Rights museum [in Atlanta], and that curation is emotional and visual, stunning and brilliant. It’s everything about the civil rights struggle.”
Domingo is excited by the rest of the cast he worked with. “You’re working with actors all in their prime,” he said. “It’s a phenomenal cast that you want to play off of. I watched the film again last night, and I thought everyone was doing phenomenal work. You can’t do it alone. It is truly an ensemble. You need every member to make it work.”
Domingo feels that not enough people know the history of legendary artist Ma Rainey, who was involved romantically with other women. “There are many parts to our heroes. The history books can leave that out so it’s nice to be able to film this. Whether it was Ma Rainey or James Baldwin, being gay is part of who they were, why they were pioneers and breaking barriers.”
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” marks Boseman’s last film role after an unexpected death earlier this year. It’s a role that could very well win Boseman a posthumous Academy Award. “No one on the set had any idea he was sick,” says Domingo. “He was very strong and courageous and private. He had a crew of people around him who loved him who I realize in hindsight were taking care of him.”
Domingo was seen in 2018’s Oscar-winning “If Beale Street Could Talk” directed by Barry Jenkins, and is also a regular in the series “Fear the Walking Dead,” which he claims he had no idea would be the hit it has become. The actor is also in several episodes of “Euphoria.”
Next year will be another big year for Domingo. He will appear in the films “Candyland” (delayed from this year), “The God Committee” and “Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse.” Despite his success in TV and film, Domingo is still passionate about theater. His play “Dot” was produced at Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre Company here in Atlanta a few years ago.
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is now in theaters and begins streaming on Netflix December 18.