MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM
April 20th, 2021 by Rosemary Brandenburg SDSA
Set Decorator Karen O'Hara SDSA
Set Decorator Diana Stoughton
Production Designer Mark Ricker
MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM garnered many accolades and nominations, as could be expected from a script tempered in the theater, with superb performances by a fine cast led by Viola Davis and Chad Boseman, directed by George C. Wolfe, the adapted screenplay by Ruben Santiago from August Wilson’s play. But its below-the-line success with nominations for Production Design, Costumes and Hair and Makeup speak to the dedication that artists at the top of their craft brought to this significant dramatic work.
Producer Denzel Washington accepted a challenge by playwright August Wilson’s widow, theater Costume Designer Constanza Romero Wilson, to make all ten of his American Century Cycle plays into films. FENCES was the first to shoot in Pittsburgh, and MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM is the second, but is Wilson’s only play not set in his native Pittsburgh.
The central set is Chicago recording studio Hot Rhythm Records. Ma Rainey arrives from her home turf in the South to make some records. It’s a scorching summer day in 1927.
Hot Rhythm Records recording studio, Chicago... Ma Rainey on a sweltering summer day. Viola Davis as Ma Rainey. Photo by David Lee ©2020 Netflix.
Rosemary Brandenburg, for SETDECOR, interviewed Oscar-nominated Set Decorators Karen O’Hara SDSA and Diana Stoughton, in separate conversations. The interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
SD: Karen, congratulations on your design award nominations for the film from the Art Directors Guild, Hollywood Critics Association, Critics Choice, Gold Derby, Black Reel, Latino Entertainment Journalists Association Film (which you won), SDSA Awards-Film and for your third nomination for an Academy Award.
KO’H: It’s fun this year at the Academy: All women Set Decorators, all friends. It’s treasure to be nominated among them.
Band room, Hot Rhythm Records recording studio... “Lighting was so important in the band room, with only the one window. Since Levee’s [Chadwick Boseman] scenes shot toward the end of the schedule, we had time to work this set out with the action, once we had the furniture down in place. I try to place everything very carefully; it has an impact on the performance: it oozes into your consciousness.” – Karen O’Hara. Photo courtesy of Netflix.
Band room, Hot Rhythm Records recording studio... Michael Potts as Slow Drag, Chadwick Boseman as Levee, Colman Domingo as Cutler. Photo by David Lee ©2020 Netflix.
SD: How did MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM come to you?
KO’H: Through a friend, Graphic Designer Karen TenEyck. She did several shows with Production Designer Mark Ricker, and spoke highly of him. I choose my projects from a story point of view and by the people I’m working with. Also, I haven’t had the chance to do much period work, and it takes place in Chicago where I’m from.
When I spoke to Mark – the prep time was VERY short, he was scouting, and I was doing reshoots in Savanna. I couldn’t be there so quickly, so recommended Diana, I was happy to have her start and co-decorate, to make everyone feel confident to move things along in the Set Decoration department.
DS: I’ve known Karen since I had assisted her decades ago on LORENZO’S OIL and SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. She was excited to come back to Pittsburgh, but with her limited availability during the short 6-week prep, I started the groundwork and attacked the hard stuff first.
Editor's note: Both Set Decorators & Production Designer Mark Ricker received the Oscar nomination this year for MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM. This is the first Academy Award nomination for Ricker and Stoughton, it is O'Hara's third!
Recording studio street... “Pam Elyea, owner of History for Hire, was instrumental in pulling together a package for the streets, for small pieces, re-creation of period product, baby carriages. Their knowledge of history is invaluable.” – Karen O’Hara. Photo courtesy of Netflix.
SD: How do you frame the storytelling on this project?
KO’H: I try to help tell the story. That’s our job as Set Decorators, to help the actors and director feel the time period. This director has an amazing career in theater and has also done film. He wanted to be true to August Wilson’s words but tell the story in a slightly different way. The biggest challenge was to not feel too theatrical. Some of the scenes that were added provided width and breadth, showing theaters, factories and cityscapes as a way to bring it bigger and more open.
The Great Migration, aka The Great Northern Migration...This shot is one of numerous sets created to represent the movement of 6 million African Americans out of the rural Southern United States to the urban Northeast, Midwest and West that occurred between 1916-1970. They helped fill Chicago’s workforce, particularly of low-wage earners. Image courtesy of Netflix.
SD: What was it like working with Director George C. Wolfe? Did his many years as a theater director impact your work?
KO’H: George is a bright man with a great sense of humor. I had good conversations with him when I was opening the sets, small conversations about his intentions. For example, in the studio, he wanted to have a scene down the hall- he wanted a long line of old posters, ads for other musicians recorded there, all in a row: he had his shot in mind and we could help tell the story.
DS: George held rehearsals every day before shooting – he liked time with the actors by himself. One of us – Karen or I – were always there to open the set. He would be early, walk in and want to sit there and absorb. Then his actors would come in, he wanted time with them to get into the day.
Theater is a language that creates a different breed of filmmaker. They are excited about research and the history of the project. They are comfortable speaking in metaphors, and about the motivation of the characters.
Director George C. Wolfe and Viola Davis as Ma Rainey. Photo by David Lee ©2020 Netflix.
“...the entire crew was so ferociously dedicated to getting it right and putting forth the truth, because when you’re doing a period piece, the truth is in every single detail. And you can’t cheat on anything. It became really thrilling, because everybody was so invested. The actors were invested in embodying the truth, and everybody working on the project, from people making wigs, to props, to everything, was so invested in getting every single detail right. That’s one of the things that I love about film is that everything matters, everything matters.” --Director George C. Wolfe interview for Below The Line
Georgia tent show... “We started the film shoot with the Georgia tent. That’s when we knew we had something incredible. The audience was excited, it was the first time we saw Viola Davis in costume and makeup, the atmosphere was charged.” – Set Decorator Diana Stoughton. Viola Davis as Ma Rainey. Photo by David Lee ©2020 Netflix.
SD: We next go to the performance at the GRAND VAUDEVILLE THEATER.
[Photo at top of the page]
KO’H: This set was a huge accomplishment for the drapery dept. We had a great local draper named Jennifer Sluk who helped with awnings on the period streets, theater drapery, and upholstery.
DS: The theater was originally to be filmed in a location but the scheduling didn’t work out, so we had to build it.
SD: Tell us about the HOTEL DU SABLE COLORED-ONLY HOTEL, another set added to the screenplay.
The Hotel Du Sable, Colored-Only Hotel...The location was a house on the North side of Pittsburgh that was found mid-renovation. The upscale Black patrons were none too pleased to see Ma Rainey, a big, proud woman from the South with her girlfriend on her arm, in their hotel. A number of the rooms were decorated that don’t appear in the finished film. Composite.
KOH: We based the hotel’s décor on an amazing café in the Bronzeville area of Chicago called the The Ideal Tea Room, at 33rd and Michigan. It was a big social center in Bronzeville, owned by Miss Mayme Lee Clinkscale. She had a reception room, a private dining room, and a couple of tea rooms serving a simple menu.
When we looked up Bronzeville at the New York Public Library, we discovered an article about its leaders. Miss Clinkscale had an important place in the community, alongside musical directors, realtors, a state representative, actors.
We were able to find amazing light fixtures and furniture...tables and great shapes to reupholster. We created a lot of drapery, used a few stunning panels that SDSA Business Member Cooper Lace helped locate.
SD: Describe your work on the BRONZEVILLE STREET
KO’H: The August Wilson connection was strong...we met such an outpouring of affection. What I love about Set Decorating is boots on the ground: meeting local people. We were doing the Chicago street in Pittsburgh, and a man walked up to us, and said his mother had grown up on this street, and for ten or fifteen years she dated August Wilson. Her character appeared in several of his plays.
Bronzeville Shoe Store... “Pittsburgh supplier Neilly Canvas Goods helped create the many awnings, supervised by draper Jennifer Sulk. All of my sources bent over backwards.” – Diana Stoughton. Image courtesy of Netflix.
Wilson’s legacy resonates in the community, they were so happy we were there. His stories are about what they know. The work he had done, his career, the notice that’s coming to his work now that the audience for film is wider than when it was seen only in the theater.
Bronzeville street corner...Two blocks in Pittsburgh became this neighborhood in Chicago, where Levee [Chadwick Boseman] finds his new pair of yellow shoes. Photo by David Lee ©2020 Netflix.
SD: The RECORDING STUDIO equipment was like a character in the film. We spoke with Pam Elyea of History for Hire, who serves as period technical advisor on so many film and television projects.
Pam said that she and Jim Elyea provided an introduction for Production Designer Mark Ricker to Rob Christorella, curator of Audio-Visual Conservation at the Library of Congress. He pinpointed the Electronic Recording Lathe that would have been used in a recording studio of this level and period.
They originally met Christorella at an annual event sponsored by the Library of Congress called “Mostly Lost: A Film Identification Workshop,” which helps identify misidentified and mystery snippets of silent films. While there, Pam went on a tour of the archives, and met the Sound department. The year before, Jim delivered a paper at the show on Lighting for Silent Films. Says Pam: “We’re geeks, that’s what we do.”
HRR recording studio equipment...“The history of the changes in recording sound was dynamic at the period, and we had to be very accurate.” – Karen O’Hara. Photo courtesy of Netflix.
In an interview, Director George C Wolfe said, “....isn’t that equipment extraordinary? I loved it. The weight, and that it takes three minutes for that weight to drop, which is why most of the recordings were three minutes.” —from Edward Douglas’ interview for Below The Line
DS: There was a 10-year period where this type of recording equipment was used, unless you were a top tier facility. I perused the research done by Mark Ricker, and then in following up, I stumbled upon a You Tube called American Epic, a PBS 4-part series about the origins of music recording.
I found the expert on Facebook, Nicholas Bergh, a historian who is passionate about music and engineering history. It turned out he was in Burbank, so Karen went over and met him. They made a deal, and we trucked the equipment to Pittsburgh. Bergh came with the equipment for 3 weeks of prep, shoot, and wrap. He was an amazing guy. He had everything, down to red recording lightbulbs, the microphones, the speakers. It was gorgeous refurbished equipment.
SD: In the RECORDING STUDIO and BAND ROOM sets, you used lighting, plumbing pipes, wiring, and electric switches to dramatic effect.
KO’H: Working with Director of Photography Tobias Schliessler, at the beginning we did a light board with the options of period-style lightbulbs. He did a light test, and we discussed what would work where. We used knob and tube wiring, and old dial switches. We had a crew person designated to refit the fixtures. We were careful about what we put where and what made sense. Lamps and practicals were important in the recording studio – the big window became an important source of light, and then the shutters were closed and the curtains drawn.
HRR recording studio, Ma Rainey’s chair in BG... “Lamps and practicals were so important in the recording studio...the big window became an important source of light, and then the shutters were closed and the curtains drawn to keep out the sound from the street.” – Karen O’Hara. Photo courtesy of Netflix.
SD: The Chair in the RECORDING STUDIO where Ma sits and commands the room was another key piece.
KO’H: Victorian furniture is not popular in the world of now, and there’s a breadth available in the Midwest. We picked a dozen, and put them together, and that one seemed best for the scale of the room, with the table and the lamp, it felt perfect. Mark Ricker, Costume Designer Ann Roth, Diana and I were always trading information: What color was the dress, the colors of the backgrounds.
SD: How was the process of finding what you needed in the area?
KO’H: We were able to source a wealth of period items in Pittsburgh, like vehicles, storefront dressing, furniture down to pharmacy items, that are still widely available, which don’t exist in California. Besides History for Hire and Bergh’s sound equipment, we also brought some things from Lennie Marvin’s Prop Heaven. We used the old standby, Lehman General for traditional items. They supply to the Amish and Mennonite community.
SD: How was your local Pittsburgh crew?
KO’H: Diana and I were lucky to have really strong help. The crew worked so hard to gather what we needed. We have to surround ourselves with the strongest, brightest people, and we had them on this project.
PITTSBURGH LOCAL CREW:
Lead: Daragh Byrne
Buyer: Paul Bucciarelli
Draper: Jennifer Sluk
Theatrical Rigger: Marty Cabot
Propmaster: Tom Garrigan
Construction Coordinator Louis Taylor
DONATIONS TO THE COMMUNITY:
KO’H: We found an enormous variety of used, almost discarded, pianos in a variety of warehouses. In the end after repair, one of them went to a group that helps a community of homeless people in a depressed area north of the city. They built a 3-walled outbuilding to shelter the piano, it’s free to folks who want to play it.
Also, the sewing machines we restored were given to two women who started an online company in August Wilson’s neighborhood. They recycle discarded silks into vintage neckties, and they hire people from the local community to work there. It was nice to continue the circle, to give back to the neighborhood that started it all.