This week Playbill checks in with Obie winner Michael Potts, who plays Winning Boy in the first Broadway revival of August Wilson's The Piano Lesson at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.
Potts is part of an all-star cast that also includes Samuel L. Jackson, Danielle Brooks, and John David Washington. Tony nominee LaTanya Richardson Jackson directs the play—part of Wilson's acclaimed Century Cycle—that is set in Pittsburgh's Hill District in 1936 and follows a brother and sister who are embroiled in a battle over a family heirloom piano carved with the faces of their ancestors. Potts plays the piano during the show.
Potts has a long history with the work of Wilson, having played Turnbo in the 2017 Broadway premiere of Wilson's Jitney and Slow Drag in the 2020 Netflix release of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (which co-starred Oscar winner Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman in his final film role).
The actor, who is equally at home in musicals and dramas, has also been seen on Broadway in The Prom, The Iceman Cometh, 1984, The Book of Mormon, Grey Gardens, and Lennon. His additional theatre credits include Mother Courage, The Tempest, Twelfth Night, Richard Ill (Falstaff Award), and The America Play (Obie Award). The actor's numerous screen credits also include The Good Fight, The First Lady, Rounding, Night Music, Prodigal Son, All Souls, The Wire, The Blacklist, Madam Secretary, God Friended Me, Nurse Jackie, Royal Pains, Damages, Trinity, NYPD Blue, and more.
What is your typical day like now?
Top of the day starts with 20 to 30 minutes of stretching. Shower, coffee, and reading several newspapers online. I answer emails. Light lunch around 1 or 2. Errands. Dinner around 5. Arrive at the theatre about 7 to 30 minutes of voice and speech warmup. Then showtime.
Are there any parts of your role or the play that seem particularly poignant/relevant following the events of the past two years?
There's a particular argument I make to Boy Willie early in Act I explaining the difference between "the white man and the colored man." I was struck by the line, which seemed almost word-for-word that was recently spoken by a Senator from Alabama during a rally. The play was written in 1987 and is set in 1936. It was a bit chilling hearing those sentiments expressed by a politician in 2022.
READ: How The Piano Lesson Design Team Created Their Instrument
Tell me a bit about working with LaTanya Richardson Jackson, the first woman to direct an August Wilson play on Broadway.
This isn't my first time working with LaTanya. She directed Pauletta Washington and myself in a Zoom reading for New Federal Theatre in early 2021. It was a very rewarding experience. Her insights are spot-on. She deeply invests in every character and won't settle for less than authenticity from her actors in every single moment. It's always about the play for her.
During this time of reflection and re-education regarding BIPOC artists and artistry, particularly in the theatre, what do you want people (those in power, fellow artists, audiences) to be aware of?
The stories of BIPOC artists aren't niche stories. They're American stories—each providing a unique and vital perspective on the American experience. They're the tales of who we've been, who we are, and who we hope to become. All of us.
What do you want people (those in power, fellow artists, audiences) to consider further?
The past is present. We're always haunted by our pasts. Ignoring or pretending those "ghosts” don’t exist or aren't important to our future is a mistake.
What, if anything, did you learn about yourself during the past two years that you didn't already know?
That I don't need as much as I once thought I did.
Do you have any other stage or screen projects in the works?
The Netflix movie Rustin from the Obamas' production company, directed by George C. Wolfe, will be released next year.
What organization would you recommend people learn more about or donate to during this time of change?
Color of Change, Compagnia de Colombari, and The 52nd Street Project.