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Interview: Production Designer Mark Ricker on Enclosed Space and Class Signifiers in ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (2020): Viola Davis as Ma Rainey. Cr. David Lee / Netflix

The world of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom gives audiences the opportunity to engage with a formidable cast of characters led by Chadwick Boseman, Viola Davis, Colman Domingo, and Glynn Turman, who have all been attracting awards attention. The visual elements of the film are particularly striking, conjuring up a specific moment in a specific neighborhood in Chicago in the 1920s. Awards Radar had the chance to speak with production designer Mark Ricker, a two-time Emmy nominee and three-time Art Directors Guild contender, about his research, approach, and his use of space to convey plenty about those inhabiting it.

Q: This film is considerably different from the last few projects you’ve worked on – Coastal Elites, Bombshell, and Escape at Dannemora. Were you eager to visit another era and completely different landscape?

A: Oh, completely. There was a period where I found myself living in the early 60s for a while. I got a call for just a studio action contemporary comedy, and I was like, yes, let me go there for a while. I’m always looking for something that will stretch my experience and put me into something completely different. The period almost came as a second thought. The material was sent to me first, and I knew that George Wolfe was attached as director, so that was the first hook. But of course the era, the 20s, was something that I had not done before. While limited in scope, since the action all takes place in a confined area, it didn’t quell my interest in trying to live in that world and figure out what the details of that would be. So, yeah, it was thrilling to get out of Fox News and out of prison and go live with Ma Rainey for a while.

Q: What did you know about Ma Rainey before all of his and what did you learn in your research?

A: I knew very little about Ma Rainey. Actually, the first thing that I had ever designed in terms of other people being involved, when I was in community theater, I did a production of Ain’t Misbehavin, and I think there was a lyric in a Fats Waller that mentioned Ma Rainey. I had that sense of who she was, but prior to diving in and doing the research and reading and looking for photographs of her, of which there are very few, I knew very little about her as a person. And I didn’t know the play. I had worked on other productions of August’s but not Ma Rainey, and I certainly didn’t know how it fit in the canon of the Pittsburgh Cycle. The fact that it’s the earliest one, it’s the first decade, and it also doesn’t take place in Pittsburgh. It was a fascinating experience to research all of that, to get into the material and to understand the systems of recording equipment at the time, what was happening in Chicago at the time. It was a discovery process to learn what existed. What were the period details of that period? There’s a sense that even I apply as a designer where if you’re living in the 40s or designing for the 40s, things that you think are old, I had to look at them twice and think, wait a minute, when was chain link invented? When was corrugated steel? When was this light that I’ve used in a thousand movies? Is this appropriate to this film? So you collaborate with your set decorator, and they bring their genius to the world. Every day is a learning experience and a discovery process. It was a great one on Ma Rainey.

Q: Most of this film takes place indoors, but the exterior shots are important and establish the tone at the very start of the film. What did you want to achieve in those moments?

A: We see most of the sets in the film in the first fifteen minutes just by the way of the characters being on this journey. By design with what George and Ruben did with the script, the fact that we start in the South in the woods and we go to this tent where we’re really in Ma’s world. She’s the most comfortable, this is where she’s from, these are the people that she knows before she makes the journey north, which is then supported by the montage that George added of the Great Migration where there were so many Black people moving north for opportunity. What they did with the structure in opening with the woods and then the tent and then through that montage we’re suddenly in this vaudeville theater that’s clearly in the city, Ma felt so comfortable in the tent, there are literally human faces within reach, she’s leaning down and she’s seeing all of these people. In the theater, there’s a separation. We don’t see any of the audience. Already, she’s starting to be removed from the places where she feels comfortable. That’s the first introduction to that. As we keep going forward with the band coming into the city, it’s the first time we see the industry. There’s a quick three pop montage of a sewing factory and a steel mill, and that’s the introduction of the heat and the oppression that these people were experiencing as they moved to the city. It’s a way to introduce the machinery as it symbolizes the machinery of the recording equipment which is another way to take that humanity, the human voice that Ma is singing it, and capturing it to dispel with her. There was an opportunity to show all these contrasts in such a rapid succession. Even the introduction of these three guys – Toledo, Cutler, and Slow Drag – three of our four band members, they got off the L train and they are in this white, working-class, industrial neighborhood which is where the studio is, as opposed to Levee, who we see singularly on a street corner by himself where he goes and buys those yellow shoes. He’s actually in a section of Bronzeville, which was this thriving metropolis of the Black community in Chicago at the time. Even there, we chose industry, we had an optician, and real estate, and insurance companies. There was a department store, and a shoe store, and everything. The colors were a little brighter. Ann Roth did that with costumes too, everything just popped a little bit more. There was a sense with Chad’s performance that melded in what we were doing, it was very aspirational. This was his moment, the beginning of him shining in his world and in the film. As opposed to the other three, where they’re just trumping along to work, and the colors were a lot more subdued. They’re going through an industrial section of town where they’re making crates, cutting lumber, and making chairs. Choices like that are the way that we can support the introduction of these characters and show the world but also art direct the subtle differences that correspond to what’s actually happening in the film.

Q: Once we’re inside, we have these spaces that are actually pretty open even though they’re enclosed. They could be very large and isolating, but it doesn’t feel that way. What were the challenges you felt in working like that and the opportunities that arose?

A: The band room was pretty closed, that was the intent of George’s process. In all honesty, I had presented larger spaces because there was so much material that took place in those rooms that my inclination was to have it be correct and authentic, but have it be a room where you could feel like there was more space beyond and you didn’t feel completely shut-in down there. Working with George, he was like, no, we want it smaller, we want no exits. Literally, there was no window in that room when we began. He wanted it very small. He wanted the space to be no larger than a boxing ring, because that’s how he saw it and how he wanted to cover the scenes in that room, as if they were boxing. We defined it by these four columns in the four corners of the room, almost as if the four boxers would go back to their corners in that time. Interestingly, they were downstairs so it was also the lowest place. There was really supposed to be no exit. The middle ground of the studio was the recording studio. We talked about it being appropriated inside what had formerly a chair factory. The booth would have been the former manager’s office where he was looking down on what was being manufactured. It also symbolized the difference between the white men who are up there, they’re the only ones who go up in booth in the film, if you notice. There’s this tier system of these three places, from the top to the bottom. It was also about finding the shape of what that wanted to be. We find an exterior location that works, where the street was. There happened to be an actual door in the façade of that building, so it starts to define, okay, we’re in the rear corner and this is the shape of the window. We worked hard to create a room that was interesting to spend this much time in. It was also interesting to find what would have been the details of this industrial chair manufacturing space but now they’re making music. Working with both sides of the brain to find that marriage and make it interesting.

Q: You mentioned your collaboration with Ann, the costume designer. How did what the characters were wearing inform the sets around them, and the sense of class and power?

A: This was the third time I’ve worked with the genius that is Ann Roth. We did this so quickly, and I had very little conversation with her while we were doing it. We had looked at some of the same research and reference pieces in terms of photography and wood cuts and collages, and there was one painting that we brought, so we were looking at the same palette. Ann’s genius, and I’ve heard her speak about this, since I was too busy doing my thing to know every detail of what she was doing, but she truly brings the sense of what those suits are. There are some details she talks about, these are the suits that would just be packed up in the suitcases and just be carried around. These are not nice suits that these guys had. Even the show dresses and the dresses that she wore in the tent weren’t really the fanciest dresses, but what she would have had local folks make. The details that Ann brings to what she does are just truly incredible. You can notice the differences between what the three guys are wearing, probably what Levee is wearing, since he spent all of his money on those yellow shoes, and what the two white characters are wearing. There’s a sense to the color and to the shape of the fabric, and the looseness and what she does. Ma also wears that fur throw that she carries and puts on as a false statement of status when she’s up in the city, as hot as it is, as we tried to represent. She’s still going to put on that fur and walk down those stairs in that hotel where she is not very welcome. Ann knows what she’s doing and she really brings it. She’s great in terms of collaboration. Again, we’ve worked together but it’s not so tightly facilitated so that we’re constantly in contact. I’m aware of what she’s doing, she’s aware of what I’m doing, and then it all comes together.

Q: Is there anything else you think audiences show know about the look and feel of the film that they may not have picked up from just watching it once?

A: I would hope that it’s all in there. It’s not an epic film in terms of its scope or largesse, in terms of the number of locations and exterior shots. What we really tried to do is to support the scope of what August was saying and what these characters go through over the course of an afternoon. It’s taking this slice of life and letting it live in this way that we can experience what these characters experience on a hot day in Chicago in 1927. I think that was our call to task, to honor that world and to let it live in the scope and the scale of the importance of what August Wilson was saying through these characters. I was honored to play my part in that.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is now streaming on Netflix.

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Written by Abe Friedtanzer

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