The actor Glynn Turman, now appearing in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” at the Mark Taper Forum, began his acting career at 13, as a member of the original Broadway cast of “A Raisin in the Sun,” received an Emmy award for his portrayal of Alex Prince, Sr., in the HBO series “In Treatment,” and is a recipient of the NAACP Image Award, and Lifetime Achievement Award. A veteran TV and film star, he appeared most recently in Showtime’s “House of Lies,” and OWN’s “Queen Sugar.” A longtime friend, dating back to when the two of us were Drama majors at New York’s former School of Performing Arts. I was able to catch up with him on Oct. 12, pre-performance, in his dressing room at the Mark Taper Forum.
Toba Singer: As a child growing up in New York, your mother exposed you to a rich vein of bohemian and cultural life in a milieu of musicians, writers, and actors. Parents today seem inclined to limit their children’s exposure to what is considered child-appropriate Looking back, how would you say that exposure affected your outlook? Were you harmed, helped, or both, by those experiences?
Glynn Turman: It definitely helped in many ways. First and most important, it gave me the ability and appreciation to accept all people, their ideas, their cultural, racial and ethnic differences, because I was exposed to so many different ways of life. Also, my mother never formed opinions about their particular choices for themselves. The way in which the arts played a role speaks for itself. I’ve had a long and extensive career for sixty years, have fed myself, my family, put kids through college, supported my extended family, while exercising a talent that she nourished and exposed me to. If there turns out to be a bad side, I’ll be sure to let you know!
TS: How did you “find” Toledo, the character you will play tonight?
GT: Toledo is a composite of different characters I’ve come across in my life. He’s a southern country boy at heart, a southerner, drawn on my father, who was from Thompson Georgia, near Augusta. My father was raised on a farm. There are cousins I met later in life and came to know better since my father’s passing, and being an actor from a very young age, you tend to soak up the characteristics, the richness of the down-home country guys and gals. This happened even before I got to play those kinds of roles. I may be a city slicker, but I’m a country boy at heart.
TS: So a country slicker, then?
GT: No, the country slicker—that’s my daddy!
Toledo is a farmer who makes his living as a musician. I’ve lived long enough to relate to his personal trials and tribulations, and I’m not impressed by celebrity, but throw a musician into the mix, and I go all goo-goo eyed: John Coltrane, Miles Davis, they always stood out for me. So I have a love of music, as does Toledo. Someone tweeted that they saw show, and loved the musicians. Those words were the highest compliment: no better way to let me know and feel that I’ve made it!
TS: What specific elements in the script, direction, and work with other cast members do you lean on, feed off, and place your confidence in, in order to relive the life of this character each time you call him up?
GT: It’s a wonderful cast, hand picked by [director] Phylicia Rashad. She has a genuine gift for coming in with a clear a concept of the play that is really a blueprint supporting the relationships among the characters. Also, several years ago, I had a chance to work with Jason Dirden, [who plays Levee in Ma Rainey], along with his brother, in a play that we did where my role was as the father of the two brothers played by them.
In this production, Jason brings this wonderful character Levee to life, and so it continues a relationship we established when we worked together before, because my character Toledo feels the necessity to explain the facts of life, large and small, to Levee. My fatherly instincts toward Levee kick in quite naturally with Jason in the role, and it is such a pleasure to work with someone whose talent is so abundantly present.
TS: Who is more needy in this relationship—Toledo or Levee?
GT: That’s the wonderful thing about August Wilson: there’s a rich exchange of knowledge, because he writes such dimensional characters who need to be fixed, and in different ways each night. So who is more needy changes with each performance—no two are the same.
TS: What roles that you’ve played stand out as vehicles for finding your depth and truth, and what about each of them and the way they were drawn, brought out something you had never seen before in yourself?
GT: I thank August Wilson for writing roles for men of my age. There are ten such plays by him. So now that I’m on the “back nine,” I am finding some of the most fulfilling roles at this stage of my career. I didn’t have the opportunity to play August’s disciple, Levee, when I was Jason’s age, but this is my third production over the last seven years of doing August’s work, and I am so very grateful.
TS: What epiphanies have occurred in those seven years?
GT: For starters, I didn’t know I could play the piano, but Billy Mitchell came to my house every day to teach me how to play [a keyboard sits adjacent to Turman’s makeup table]. There has been a piano in our house for twenty-seven years, and I’d always looked at it as a picture frame! Had I not been a dedicated actor, I wouldn’t have attempted this. It was a huge challenge to rise to the occasion. I’m at an age where I sometimes struggle to remember lines, and now I’ve got to remember musical notes! I’m pretty excited about finding that I could pick this up!
TS: What about the role of Alex Prince, Sr., on “In Treatment,” where your performance earned you an Emmy?
GT: The “In Treatment” editor called me in before the episode aired, and I went in and you know my personal story [Turman lost his adult son Russell, and the character he plays in In Treatment loses his adult son.] I had to struggle with the question of whether it would it be selling my soul to bring my personal tragedy into this work. I concluded that if you’re dedicated, you go there, and I did go. Then I went and watched it, and it was as if I wasn’t watching me.
TS: How so?
GT: I always watch my work analytically. For example, I might notice that there was a beat that I missed, or something else the moment was calling for that didn’t happen. So I was watching it from that standpoint, and it wasn’t until I looked at the editors’ faces as I left the viewing room that it hit me what this was. It became surreal. I’m used to pulling the scabs off of my own wounds, and did this from a very young age. I’ve gotten used to going to that place as best I could. but this time, it didn’t hit me where I’d been until I saw their faces. But I find that the older I get, the simpler it becomes. I don’t have to hide anything. When you’re younger, there’s so much bravado that clouds access to your own self, who you are. It’s easy to hide in, or manipulate that bravado, and then I reached an age where I no longer feel the need to impress anyone, including myself.
TS: If you were writing and directing a film about Colin Kaepernik’s decision to kneel instead of stand during the playing of the National Anthem, what would you focus on in telling that story?
[Turman excuses himself and leaves his dressing room in search of a prop that he will use in the show. It’s an excerpt from a speech given by Frederick Douglass on July 4, 1852, that answers the question posed by Douglass: “What to the slave is your fourth of July?” and Turman reads from it.]
GT: “Go search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the Old World, travel through South America, search out every abuse and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.” That would be my starting point in telling Kaepernick’s story.
TS: It’s been both a turbulent and rewarding road that you’ve travelled since graduating from the School of Performing Arts more than 50 years ago. What have you carried with you, willingly or not, from your time and training there?
GT: You, Toba! You are something else—all of you! You, Ben [Vereen], And Regina [Wolnikow]. You were my friends; you were part of my life when it was at its roughest, when I lost my mother in my senior year of high school.
TS: And what did you gain from PA in your professional life? GT: I got some of the best training that I was able to build on, respect for the craft and our business. For me, stardom never went high; it went long. The experience and training I got at PA was responsible for me being able to continue this career and always approach it from the point of view of the primacy of the work, always putting the work above everything else.
By Toba Singer