Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
At the start of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Ma’s piano player, Toledo, played by Glynn Turman, is walking down the street carrying a newspaper — the Black-owned Chicago Defender — under his arm. Soon after, Toledo is in a recording studio rehearsal room, leaning against the piano, reading that paper. When his bandmates draw him into a boisterous debate, Toledo folds the paper up under his arm with the fluid grace of a man who makes the newsstand his first stop each morning.
A man of music and language and history itself, Toledo has theories he’s anxious to share. The young horn player, Levee, played by Chadwick Boseman, has theories, too, and they worry Toledo. When Levee begins to sing the praises of having a good time, Toledo counters that a Black man must live for more than momentary pleasure, and for more than himself. Toledo makes his point, but he goes on for so long that Levee waves him off, a kid dismissing an overexcited old man.
Toledo is crushed. As Levee walks away, the piano player’s eyes shine with pain. His lips press tight, and his head shakes slightly, not in anger toward Levee, but in self-reproach. Toledo, Glynn Turman allows us to see, wanted so badly to get through to Levee, to save him from himself.
All that reading, Turman suggests with the smallest of gestures (the character actor’s art) — Toledo’s really been doing it for Levee.
And for all the Levees.
— Chuck Wilson