Known for his role as the chillingly cool and murderous Brother Mouzone in TV’s The Wire and for his numerous musical and straight roles on Broadway, such as Mafala Hatimbi in The Book of Mormon, Potts has been performing on stage and screen for more than 25 years.
But acting was never a sure bet for Potts. He said that when he decided to become an actor, his mother staged an intervention.
“I remember coming home from a summer job to find a dining room full of family and neighbors that my mother was dishing out food to. It was like an ambush. She said, ‘Sit down, we want to talk to you,’” recalled Potts. “There was a neighbor there who was a former Black Panther, she said, ‘Actor? Actor? Black people been acting all their lives; you need to do something that contributes.’”
Potts split his youth between summers in Brooklyn with his parents and the school year with his maternal grandparents in the small town of Wisacky, South Carolina. Both communities felt strongly that he should enter the professional class as a doctor or lawyer. When he got into Columbia College in New York City, however, his professors thought otherwise. One adviser told him that great black actors, singers, and writers do indeed make important contributions.
Though he may have diverged from what his elders wanted, he said his hometown of about 500 people influenced much of his education and artistry. With the church at the center of communal life, the call and response between the congregation and pastor stirred something that he carried with him to the theatre.
“Reverend Wright was an extraordinary preacher,” said Potts, recalling his church’s minister. “That man had this great bass baritone voice and he understood language and the music of it and the interplay of it. If you listen to gospel music or if you listen to Dr. King’s speeches, there’s the repetition of a phrase, the elaboration of it. It’s almost like classical music.”
Finding the music in his scripts became key to his craft. He noted that while Eugene O’Neill’s words captured the turn-of-the-century language of the New York denizens, so much of The Iceman Cometh relies on the actors understanding timing and “where the language lands and what words makes most sense in a sentence.”
Potts studied the great plays and literature in college, but the voices, he notices, were mostly those of European white men. It wasn’t until the gap between his bachelor’s and his master’s degrees, when he was in the Army Reserves, that he heard the voice of a black playwright that would change his life.
“I was watching the Tonys that year and it was the year that August Wilson’s Fences [the 1987 production] was up for several Tonys, and I remember that great snippet of James Earl Jones and Courtney Vance,” he said of the play’s father-son climax. “That scene just blew my mind and awakened something again. I saw my life. I saw a piece that I understood. I recognized the characters. They sounded like people I grew up around.”
It was then that he decided to apply to Yale School of Drama—in secret.
“It was really one of these Hail Mary passes that was going to decide the course of my life,” he said. “I gave God an ultimatum: I said if I get in then this is what I’m meant to do.”
He would go on to graduate from Yale and perform in dozens of plays, movies, and on television. In addition to his role on The Wire, he’s also known for his role as Detective Maynard Gilbough on HBO’s True Detectives as well as recurring roles as Senator Fred Reynolds on Madam Secretary and as Sergeant Cole Draper on Law and Order. But his television work is informed by his work in the theater, he said, not the other way around. He has been lauded for his singing and acting on Broadway since 2005, where he has appeared in Lennon, Grey Gardens, and last year’s acclaimed production of Jitney, written by his theatrical hero, August Wilson. Much of what he’s learned on stage and screen, he plans to bring to Fordham students.
“I want students to learn as I have learned,” he said. “They need to ask, ‘How do you talk to people on stage?’” he said.
He said that too often actors perform and don’t listen. He described a far more empathetic approach to the craft rather than “showing off,” which he said he sees far too much of these days. Like the call and response between congregation and pastor, Potts said actors must connect with their audience. But most importantly, they must connect with each other.
“Directors love it when they see actors actually speaking to one another, actually having the conversation, as opposed to acting as if they’re having a conversation,” he said. “It’s absolutely vital to make that connection. Theater teaches you how to think deeply and listen. My hope is to impart that to these other young actors.”