Last fall, while actor Marchánt Davis was rehearsing for Ain't No Mo' on Broadway, the team of the play Good Night, Oscar reached out to him asking if he was interested in joining the production. The part in question: Alvin, a nurse for Oscar Levant (played by Sean Hayes) who is in the middle of a mental breakdown in the play. It wasn’t an immediate yes from Davis. That’s because Davis is Black, and he was aware that a Black actor playing a caretaker is a “heavy trope.”
As Davis bluntly puts it: “I wanted to be careful because this is a Black character written by a white man. I wanted the character to have agency beyond just Oscar. So for me in accepting this, I was very transparent with the director [Lisa Peterson] and writer [Doug Wright] that if, during the rehearsal process, things came up in which we had an opportunity to expand and to elevate it a little more, [then] I would be willing to sort of go on that train.”
Wright was game, as well. As Davis describes him, “Doug Wright is one of the most generous spirits I know in the American theatre.”
Good Night, Oscar (which just received three Tony Awards nominations) takes place in 1958 during a taping of The Tonight Show. Famed pianist Oscar Levant just checked into a mental hospital, but he’s been invited on the late-night show. The play hinges on whether Oscar can overcome his demons and pull it together for this one evening. Alvin plays a nurse at the hospital who comes along to the taping; he is in charge of supervising Oscar and giving him his medication.
Davis drew on his own family history—his grandmother and his mother were both nurses—to explore who Alvin might be. Davis and Wright also worked together to establish a backstory for Alvin; the character wants to go to medical school and make his parents proud.
The stakes for him were also made more palpable on Broadway: Alvin is a Black man in an all-white space in 1958. So he needs Oscar to take his medication and to keep it together, otherwise, “he won't get to go to medical school. He won't get to ascend,” explains Davis. “And we all know that in 1955, what happened to Emmett Till. So there's this dynamic there that is sort of unspoken, but as a character you fully understand and embody.” For instance, in the play, Alvin asks for permission to speak to Oscar’s wife, June—a tacit acknowledgment of the class and racial lines at play there.
And in one crucial scene of the play, Alvin also helps Oscar (who’s haunted by the ghost of George Gershwin) realize how special the pianist’s own music is. For Davis, it’s a particularly crucial scene to play opposite Sean Hayes.
“At the end of that moment, everybody realizes how beautiful a melody Oscar has written and how beautiful his own music is,” explains Davis. “And if I can sort of give that to him, then the audience is let into some of the inner turmoil that's going on with him.”
Speaking to Davis, it’s clear that he thinks deeply about the characters he plays and builds them fully from the inside out. It explains why he’s been so busy this season. Davis began the season with Ain’t No Mo’ (which was just nominated for six Tony Awards, including Best Play). Then he also has a new film out on HBO, Reality, released May 29 and based on the Broadway play Is This a Room. The film uses the real FBI transcripts of the interrogation of Reality Winner, a former Air Force member who leaked classified information about Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.
Davis plays Agent Taylor, who interrogates Reality (played by Euphoria’s Sydney Sweeney). He had auditioned for the Broadway production but ended up not doing the play in 2021 because “I wasn't ready to go back to the theatre” after the COVID-19 pandemic. When it came time to do the film, director Tina Satter (who created the Broadway play) reached out to Davis. It was a 16-day shoot in Georgia (the site of the original interrogation). But for Davis, the film expands on the stage play in crucial ways.
On stage, Reality is interrogated by two FBI agents, on a bare stage. The film shows Reality at work, and it shows her small home, her cat, her dog—and how that home is disturbed by these teams of FBI agents. Adds Davis: “On stage, it’s very bare bones, it has this claustrophobic nature. [On screen] when you have these two guys, and then all these other folks entering her home, and the fact that they were all men—it's a much different feeling.” It’s a tense watch, as the viewer can feel the walls closing in around Reality.
Among the three projects he’s done this season, Davis is not shy in admitting that the one that stands out in his heart is Ain’t No Mo’ by Jordan E. Cooper. There, Davis played five different characters, deciding whether or not to leave America and go back to Africa. For Davis, Ain’t No Mo’ is personal because it was the first play he’s done that his brother has loved. “My brother came to the show three times,” he says, laughing. “My brother has never jumped on board. He was outside the theatre cheering. He would come and grab people’s Playbills, making sure all the cast got to sign it because he was so excited. I've never experienced that.” Davis then adds, reverently, “It just taught me a lot of what theatre can be: the seeing place.”
Even speaking about Ain’t No Mo’ now, Davis gets choked up, his love of the work palpable. And he doesn’t mince words when talking about the play’s early closure, which came just days after the show’s opening. “It’s a true shame that a piece like that couldn't couldn't live, it's a shame for the artists involved, it's a shame for the art itself,” he says.
But considering the play’s Tony nominations, it’s clear there is great artistry there and admiration from the industry. Davis thinks that for boundary-breaking and diverse works like Ain’t No Mo’ to succeed financially on Broadway, marketing on the Main Steam needs to be reinvented.
“I think shows like Shucked this season have sort of reimagined what those practices can be, and truly taking it to another level,” he says. “I think it's about reevaluating the ways in which we go about getting people to the theatre and who we’re trying to get to the theatre. One of the things that I've heard for years is that, ‘Oh, Black people don't come to the theatre. People can't afford tickets.’ That's a lie.” He says that the first Broadway show he saw was In the Heights, adding, “It's about reaching the people who may have never seen theatre but will come if you reach out. It's about doing it in an intentional way and continuing to do it.”