‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ Star Glynn Turman on the Differences Playing His Character on Stage and Film

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“The challenge also is for the actor to not get comfortable and rely on things that worked for you previously, to discover the character all over again…” – Glynn Turman

In the Netflix film adaptation of August Wilson’s 1982 play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, actor Glynn Turman portrays Toledo, the pianist of blues legend Ma Rainey’s band. Speaking about his association with the play on both stage and on film with Gold Derby, spoke about playing his part on both stage and screen and how his approach to playing Toledo changed.

Turman came to the play with some very helpful experience by having previously played Toledo on stage. Naturally, that helped him with his lines, but it wasn’t like he just repeated his on-stage performance. He explains, “It’s a wordy play. August Wilson is all about his ability to construct words so beautifully. That puts weight on actors to remember all those words. So I had a head start on that part of it, but then again, at the same time, there’s different interpretations of the character, different facets of the character and we’re in a different medium, from stage to motion picture. So it presented its own challenges and the challenge also is for the actor to not get comfortable and rely on things that worked for you previously, to discover the character all over again, so that was a challenge.”

Though Turman described Wilson’s work as “wordy,” he doesn’t mean to imply that it is more challenging for him to perform in one of Wilson’s plays than any other playwright’s work. He says, “No, I don’t say that I prepare differently. I have a technique that suits me after all these years that I kind of rely on in terms of what I’m looking for in order to ground the character and the words. It’s just that August has such a distinct rhythm in his works and you want to pay homage to that rhythm and if you can lock into that rhythm, all of the rest of the stuff becomes so much easier. It’s like reading sheet music, if you’re able to do that. It’s like playing in a Count Basie band.”

In an example of how he played Toledo differently on the stage versus in the film, Turman explains how Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom film director George C. Wolfe — himself a Tony Award-winning stage director — encouraged him to perform one of his character’s monologues very differently than how he performed it on stage. He reveals:

“On stage, because of a few things, but first of all, because we’re playing in a house of 700, maybe 1,000 people, I was able to devise an activity along with that monologue that was, I think I was wrapping sandwiches. There’s a part in the play where he says, ‘Your sandwiches are here,’ and so on and so forth. Well, then at the end of that, I use the leftover sandwiches to accompany that particular speech. So I was wrapping the sandwiches as I was saying the speech and putting them away. The sandwiches in the movie were so obsolete that you didn’t even really realize that they were there. Second of all, George said, ‘No, no, no, no, no, no, Glynn.’ He says, ‘Just sit at the piano and simply deliver that speech. Just break it all down.’ So he guided me, directed me to that nuance that was a complete tone shift and completely everything shift from what I had depended on in the stage production and he was absolutely right because he let the camera do the work. He brought it in. He held me right here and the next thing I knew, I was sort of blues singing it. I was singing a song in that monologue and striking the keys on the piano, which then Branford [Marsalis] laid in this beautiful, easy little blues score and just changed the whole dynamic of the piece. Yet, all the meaning was still there and because it was the medium, I was able to reach the world with that particular thing.”

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