Finding Theatre During Tropical Quarantine
Living in the tropics has certain advantages - warm weather, beautiful beaches, lush wildlife, fresh exotic fruits, and year round water sports. One disadvantage is the proximity to cultural experiences like theatre.
We’ve been locked down since last March and unable to leave the country without penalty, so our entertainment has been mostly outdoors in this beautiful paradise. HOWEVER, we have found some things we enjoy on the streaming machines. Lo-and-behold, Netflix has been turning theatre into film and we are here for it.
You can find dramatic performances, well-choreographed dance numbers, campy songs, delightful music, contemporary themes, cultural commentary and more in your living room or bedroom, if you prefer.
Netflix is not alone in this. Early in the pandemic we jumped on the BBC train and went through a hefty pile of Shakespeare filmed in contemporary settings. The boys really enjoyed these.
Streaming the Action
Two recent movies (from plays) we have enjoyed are The Prom and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. These are on different ends of a spectrum. The Prom is flashy, campy and full of big song and dance numbers to rouse support for a marginalized community, and it is a love story at its heart.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a tale of black America. At the heart of this movie is music, to be sure, but music that is stolen and manipulated, taken from a marginalized community and repurposed for the “mainstream.” This film relies on stripped down sets and solid performances.
If you are looking for fun dance numbers, big stars, a love story and for a small homophobic town to come to its senses, then this one's for you. Nicole Kidman, James Cordon, Meryl Streep and Andrew Rannells are the Broadway actors who descend upon Edgewater, Indiana to bring awareness to one lesbian’s fight to attend prom with her girlfriend.
Jo Ellen Pellman and Ariana Debose portray the couple, although Debose’s character is buried deep in the closet because her mother, the indelible Kerry Washington, is head of the PTA and leader of the group opposed to allowing the couple to attend the prom.
Singing and dancing, FUN. Close-minded numpty-heads, not fun. If both of the leads are incredibly believable, it’s because they are refreshingly, lesbian characters played by real-life lesbians. Jo Ellen Pellman delivers a fantastic performance. She will have you up and down, excited for her debut, and then crying when she is left behind.
The big stars are brilliant and provide much needed levity. Nicole Kidman reminded me of her Chicago role. Meryl Streep is divine. Kerry Washington delivers a commanding presence and is believable as a conservative, overbearing, bigoted mom. Andrew Rannells is pretty awesome, especially when convincing the crappy teenagers that they’re being crappy and homophobic, as you do, with a big musical number in the mall.
We thoroughly enjoyed this romp. Thank you, Ryan Murphy.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom brings the fire. This is a powerful play delivered to the small screen by renowned director George C. Wolfe. The film version is an adaptation of the August Wilson play in which Ma Rainey and her band record an album in a Chicago studio on a hot summer day in the mid-1920’s.
The cast includes Chadwick Boseman, Viola Davis, Colman Domingo (smooth talking Victor Strand from FTWD), and Glynn Turman and Paige Taylour (who is about to blow up - remember her name). This is Boseman’s last film. In fact, he died just days after they wrapped during post production.
Boseman’s Levee is an antagonist to Davis’ Ma, despite their similar quest to bring their best to the art they create. Levee is aptly named. His character carries the energy of angry water beating at a levee, ready to burst forth with devastating abandon, to push its way over what is old while creating something new.
Boseman delivers an incredible performance, including harrowing soliloquies wherein the audience discovers the incredible trauma he faced as a child watching the rape of his mother by a gang of white men and the death of his father at those same hands.
Ma is calm and quietly in charge of her empire. She knows how to manipulate and extrapolate precisely what she needs while navigating waters fraught with racist indignity. Stolen art, ideas, identities and culture are at the heart of this story. (and in Levee’s case, his childhood)
Even though black America is living free in Chicago in the mid-20’s, we see how plaintively unfree that experience can be.
Speaking about the scenes between Levee and her character, Dussie Mae (Ma’s girl), Paige Taylour remarked, “...it was like we just knew who these people are. We know they didn't get the opportunity to really ever feel free.”
This brings me to the set and that damn door in the basement band room. Levee tries to open that door the entire movie and only after he has stabbed Toledo in a fit of rage, does he get it open only to discover there is no way out.
Bringing the Magic
Who would have thought that Netflix would one day bring us modern theatre during a pandemic when we are all locked indoors and the theatres are shuttered. When live performances are not an option, this is a close second.
We have truly enjoyed both films and we hope to find more to come. If you have not watched either, check them out, but be sure you do your homework before you watch with the kids. We did not include the kids in either of these viewings. I think The Prom would have been ok for our boys, but definitely not Ma Rainey.
Leave a comment and let us know if you’ve seen these or if you have recommendations for other theatre available on the small screen.