Four decades ago, Glynn Turman watched August Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom on Broadway at the Cort Theatre. "I was thinking, man, I sure would love to do Levee," he tells Esquire down the phone in early December.
He never did get to play Levee, the mercurial trumpeter at the heart of the play: a story of a jazz band recording with the legendary (and eponymous) mother of the blues. The late Chadwick Boseman beat him to it for a film adaptation that's coming to Netflix this week. Instead, Turman is the band's cosmically minded elder statesman and pianist Toledo, who he played during a stage run in 2016.
"That’s the wonderful thing about August Wilson’s work," he says. "There’s a decade no matter where you are in your life that you may be able to do at some point."
Turman's packed a lot into his 60 year strong career, which began at 19 after he skipped a truck driving job to go for an audition mid-shift. After years on American TV and smaller film roles, plus an audition with George Lucas for Star Wars – only years later finding out it was for Han Solo – he broke through in the UK as Mayor Clarence Royce in The Wire. He's sprinkled gravitas on dozens of things you've seen: Fargo; Suits; coming of age classic Cooley High; Scrubs; JJ Abrams' Super 8; Gremlins, with a needle sticking out of his bum.
For Turman, this new Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is a career high. It's part of Wilson's ten-play Pittsburgh Cycle exploring the Black experience across the span of the 20th Century, and Toledo, Turman says, is a man who's seen it all, and been burned by it.
"The core of his character is basically a man who’s suffering from heartbreak. He had one love in his life, and that love shunned him away, left him. So there he is, a man with that much wisdom and that much life experience, who knows the way life goes. And it’s all a part of living, but he lives with that regret. That’s the core of the character and that goes whatever medium you’re going to play him in, that’s one of the core elements. And the rest of it is just part of the song."
Are there any similarities between being in a band and working with a group of actors?
Yeah, especially if you’re on the road, you know. You’re kind of your own family when you’re on the road. Bands in those days were playing on the road – Ma’s band went up to Chicago after playing in the South, so they had to be each other’s company and each other’s protection and each other’s everything. It’s the same with an acting troupe. We all went to Pittsburgh to do this play, and we hadn’t worked together before so we had to gel and start getting to know each other. So we made extra special time to eat, go out for drinks or whatever so we had a familiarity and comfort being around one another. So that camaraderie, you know. And because we were away from home and our loved ones, we counted on each other for certain comforts in terms of protection and security in our group.
What connection did you have with Ma Rainey before playing Toledo? Are you into the blues?
Oh yeah. I love the blues. I play blues all the time. I play a little blues harp. I didn’t play the piano before taking on this role starting with the play – Billy Mitchell, a wonderful jazz musician here in California, he came to give me my chops on blues piano. Then we go to Pittsburgh and do the movie and here’s [three-time Grammy winner] Branford Marsalis giving me piano lessons. I’ve played blues harmonica at venues, but to play the piano is a challenge and I’m still playing. This Covid has made it very easy to try to hone in and get better. It’s been a wonderful thing to increase my knowledge and skills.
Does it change your acting?
For sure. The same reason you go to museums: you see how colours are used by different artists. Art is art: it all connects, it all intertwines, it all becomes a mish-mash. You can always learn something from the artistic process. The sounds and different pitches and so on. In playing the piano now, I’ve already got an enrichment of technique and listening that I didn’t have before. I’m nowhere near a musician, but an appreciation for different sounds now is wonderful.
One of Toledo’s key lines is about there being more to life than having a good time.
I think he’s got a point there, you know. He’s looking at things through a very… if you take it to the times that we’re in right now, especially in America with the #MeToo movement and Black Lives Matter movement and so on. There was a time when too often the Black community might say, 'Oh I’m not going to vote, I’m not going to do this, it doesn’t matter. To hell with it – I’m not gonna.' And just kinda keep doing what we’ve been doing, partying, looking for a good time.
But this time we’re in such understandable peril. Never before has it been more clear how much our votes counted in terms of the swing, and demonstrating that we’re not happy with the oppressive situation that we were under. To make a change we had to come together and do that as a team, as a people, together. You know, we’ll get back to partying later [laughs]. August foresaw in his writing: that this is the kind of situation where we’ve got to come together, all of us – “I can’t do this by myself” – all of us got to do it. This is exactly what he was talking about in the play. It’s amazing how it’s so on point.
One other line that jumps out is when Viola Davis’s Ma Rainey says, “All they want is my voice.” Do you feel any parallels between that and how Black artists have been used in film and TV?
That’s interesting. I remember I was on a show years ago, we were doing a scene. The cast stopped because they were not portraying Black people in a manner that we thought was right. This was during the Sixties and early Seventies, the civil rights movement time. When I expressed that we wouldn’t say this and we wouldn’t talk like that, one of the producers said to me, alright then, how would you do it?
And the writer sat there, ready to take my description: “Well, what would you say?” And I summed up the situation, and I said, “I won’t tell you what I’d say, but I will write it for you, and you’ll have to pay me.” Oh! He said, “OK Glenn, write the scene and come back with it.” Which I did! And I’d never written anything before. I came back with it, with misspellings, and the little typewriter I had was all jacked up so some of the letters were all good and some of them weren’t. It was like chicken scratch on that typewriter.
But I wrote that scene, and I got a screen credit for it, and I got paid. That is exactly what we’re talking about, what we have to be aware of, our work. If not, they’d just put his writer on it with my words, and that writer will get the credit and the money. But I was able to because of the awareness of the times, not any of my brilliance. It was the times that made us keen, having the fortitude to say that and benefit from it.
What are your favourite memories of working with Chadwick Boseman?
He was dedicated and energetic – I can’t believe how energetic he was, and how he’d always say, “One more, one more take.” On some of the most strenuous scenes, he was ready to go one more take. Which is really unbelievable now that I know what he was fighting through, what his body was going through at the time. To want one more after all the energy we had expelled.
Some of my favourite scenes are when we were off the set, you know. Just hanging out, witnessing his good sense of humour, the way he was jovial with his people around, meeting his darling wife-to-be Simone, and the way he seemed to adore her and she him. Those kinds of things were really refreshing to me, to get to know that side of him.
You weren’t aware that he was ill at the time?
I didn’t know until he died. We heard rumours that he was sick, but I didn’t think deathly sick.
You and Chadwick have that climactic scene together, after Toledo scuffs his shoes. Having played it a lot, what does that ending mean?
I see it as, when the shoes are first introduced, those shoes are a fuse. They’re the fuse to a bomb, and you don’t even know it. But at the very beginning, as soon as Slow Drag steps on his shoes, that fuse is lit. And that’s the tragedy, the horror of the Black experience. You hear a lot about Black-on-Black crime, and you don’t know when the fuse had been lit, you see. So when it explodes you think it’s about these two or three people that was involved in that explosion. You think it’s about the shoes but it’s not about the shoes! It’s just the fuse that sets off the bomb. It’s about all the life that went in between.
This all happens in one day, you know? One day in Levee’s life, that he had the hopes of rising above his circumstance having the hopes of the art that he’s so proud of – he says it: “My dad said he should have named me Gabriel, that’s how good I play this thing, this thing is gonna take me to a whole ‘nother level in the world”. By the end, that which he thought he was, the establishment has simply used him up, and crushed his dreams. He’s not gonna get the girl, she’s not gonna go with him now. He’s out of Ma’s band, the biggest band in the country. The guys have been dragging on him, he’s had to dig up the past of all that happened to his mother.
All this happened in a couple of hours one day, you know? So yeah, he explodes. It goes back to Langston Hughes, the poem [‘Harlem’]: “What happens to a dream deferred? Does It dry up like a raisin in the sun?... Or does it explode?”
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is in select cinemas now and on Netflix from 18 December
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