June 07, 2023
Marchánt Davis has lived and worked in New York City for years, but he's never found a barber who measures up to the one he's had since childhood. So twice a month, the actor travels back home to Philadelphia for a trim.
"Oh yes. Every two weeks," he recalls with a laugh. "My barber, Jamal McKay, he's been my barber since I was six years old."
Davis has been behind on his appointments these days, as he's currently starring in Broadway's "Good Night, Oscar," a play about the composer and actor Oscar Levant, seven nights a week. Davis plays Alvin, a nurse helping Levant (played by Sean Hayes) through a stay in a mental hospital in 1958. The stakes are high for Alvin, not only because he's caring for a famous person but because he's a Black man treating a white celebrity.
"Emmett Till was just murdered in 1955," Davis says. "So even the way that character talks to (Mrs. Levant) in the play is just worlds apart from where we are now....I think for me, it's always really important to explore the nuance of what it means to be Black in a predominantly white space."
Davis also explores that tension in the new HBO film "Reality," about NSA whistleblower Reality Winner. He plays one of two FBI agents interviewing Winner (played by Sydney Sweeney) at her Georgia home in 2017 just hours before her arrest. That movie was based on the 2021 play "Is This a Room," which Davis almost starred in before scheduling conflicts forced him to drop out.
Add in his first children's book, published in January, and it's been a busy year for Davis, who first broke out in 2019 with the Broadway play "The Great Society" and movie "The Day Shall Come." (In the former, he played civil rights icon Stokely Carmichael; in the latter, he played a radical preacher loosely inspired by the Liberty City Seven.)
Speaking from New York, the Nicetown native shares insight into his recent characters, the musicals he's dying to book and how Philly "bleeds out of" him and into his work.
PhillyVoice: From "Reality" all the way back to "The Great Society" and "The Day Shall Come," you’ve starred in a lot of movies and shows about political dissidents going up against the state. What draws you to them?
Marchánt Davis: It's funny. You know, I think it's less of what draws me to them than what draws them to me. I think there's something innately in me that wants to be political, but acting is the way I use my voice. It's a weird thing. I don't think that it's been deliberate, but I do think that I tend to respond to, or people tend to respond to me in, pieces that have something to say and have a pulse on what's happening in the world around me.
Did you follow the Reality Winner story when it broke?
I....did not. I'm not even gonna lie, I was not aware of who Reality Winner was before this project. I think that's the wonderful thing about becoming an actor, right? You're made aware of experiences that are so far outside your own. And I think there are touch points which you can go to and be like, oh, well that's similar to this thing. Like with "The Day Shall Come," it was like, oh, that reminds me of John Africa and the MOVE organization. Whereas Reality Winner, the only whistleblower I had known of or heard of was (Edward) Snowden. And we all know that Snowden was never convicted, you know?
So I had no touch point before doing the project. Of course, once I got the project — actually it was when I was auditioning for the Broadway production, because I was cast in the Broadway production, but it ended up not working out with my schedule — her story was thrust into my atmosphere.
You went to the Berlin Film Festival for the movie. What was that experience like?
Oh my God, I love Berlin. It was my first time at the film festival, not my first time in Berlin. But it was my first time at the film festival and it was a blast. You know, I've done South by Southwest and I've been to Tribeca and some of the festivals here in the states, but Berlin was probably one of the biggest festivals I've been to thus far. Little-known fact: Sydney Sweeney actually paid for her costars to fly out there. Because it was such a small-budget film, the producers weren't able to fit it in the budget, but Sydney thought it was important to have us all there, which I agreed.
The FBI agent you play was, to paraphrase Reality Winner, a middle-aged white guy with a beer belly. Did you have discussions with the director, Tina Satter, about the politics of making that character Black and what that meant for the performance?
Yeah, she was very specific in knowing that she wanted to do that. But I think as a director in an experience that you aren't familiar with, you can be specific in your wants and desires, but there's a level of nuance that comes through the actor who is of that experience that is just unknown. So it was really exciting because one, it's liberating, and two, I think my ears are listening to it in a different way than, say, (costar) Josh (Hamilton) or Sydney. The questions that I begin to bring to the table are gonna be slightly different. My question right off the bat is, why does she keep talking? That was funny enough, that wasn't everybody's question. Tina was just enamored with the way they were mainly male agents and how they didn't read her her rights, but I was like, at the end of the day, she kept talking, so why?
I think the character's desire and need to do his job well because of who he is, the feeling of imposter syndrome and needing to succeed within this space and needing to do as good of a job as possible, was very potent for me and for that character. There are a lot of levels of nuance that are really exciting when you put a Black body in that space.
You're now in your third Broadway show, but you've only acted in plays so far, even though you were in many musicals at the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts. Do you have a dream musical or musical role?
That's how I got my start. I got my equity card doing "Big River" up at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston, and doing summer stock musicals. It's funny because I sing a little bit in "Good Night Oscar," and every time at the stage door, folks are like, where can we hear you? And I'm like, oh geez, I guess I gotta get back to it. Things have come in my inbox and I just don't think the right musical has sort of happened yet for me. I am exploring the idea of doing a cabaret in the city within the next year.
But dream role is what you ask. God, is there a dream musical role? Yeah, there are a couple, right? This is probably gonna sound a little corny, but I'm an old-school musical person. I always wanted to play Harold Hill in "The Music Man." Or I would love to play Rooster in "Annie." I would love to play Floyd Collins in "Floyd Collins." And I would love to be in "Ain't Misbehavin''' if they ever brought it back.
You touched on this earlier, how the MOVE bombing informed your performance in "The Day Shall Come." As someone who grew up in Philadelphia, what is your personal history was with that story? How did you first hear about it?
It's one of those things where, up until high school, I heard about it via word of mouth through my mom and aunts and uncles. My aunt had lived on that block during that time. Maybe it was high school, maybe it was college, but I watched the documentary "Let The Fire Burn." It's a brilliant documentary about that time. And I guess I say I'm not political, but I know a lot about Philly politics. Wilson Goode, who was the mayor at that time, you know, he had a very contentious relationship with some of the Black community. And my mom had talked about him and my grandma had mentioned him at times, you know how people in New York go, "Oh, Giuliani"? And so I think as a kid, I went down a rabbit hole once I got access to the internet to figure out who he was and what happened there.
Are there other bits of Philly history that you bring into your work?
Philly sort of bleeds out of me in a beautiful way. There are moments even if I'm not working on a project. Like I recently was talking to a showrunner for a TV show on Netflix that's coming out soon with Philly native Colman Domingo. And I think they were getting into the process of figuring out music. And I was like, "Oh, have you heard of Jazmine Sullivan?" And he was like, "Who's that?" And I was like, "You're telling me you are doing a show about Philly and you wanna have some R&B, neo soul and you don't have Jazmine Sullivan on that list?" I said, "What about Musiq Soulchild? Is he on that list?" I said, "Now if the Roots isn't on that list, then fire everyone."
So it's weird how I think Philly serves me. 'Cause it's always unexpected. I vomited out knowledge, not even knowing that I know it. You know what I mean? But it's so instilled in me and it's sort of a part of my DNA that when I hear something or a story being told about Philly or in relation to Philly and there's something in it that doesn't ring true, everything in me that is Philly comes out and corrects them.
This interview has been edited for length, clarity and flow.