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Mahershala Ali Talks Smartly About His Latest Play and More

Updated: May 7, 2023

Mahershala Ali at the Second Stage Theater.

Mahershala Ali at the Second Stage Theater.

Mahershala Ali 

Talks Smartly About His Latest Play and More

by Brad Balfour

When actor Mahershala Ali joined the cast of noted playwright Lydia R. Diamond’s off-Broadway production Smart People, he added another feather in his cap. He had just finished tackling both The Hunger Games: Mockingjay 1 & 2 and House of Cards. Now with his recent casting as the nefarious Harlem nightclub owner Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes, he’s taken on a role that will garner him an even bigger geek fan base – the villain in Marvel’s Netflix series Luke Cage, based on the classic comic book.

Born Mahershalalhashbaz Gilmore in Oakland, California and raised in nearby Hayward, Ali received his Mass Communications BA degree at St. Mary’s College. He professionally debuted as an actor with the California Shakespeare Festival in Orinda. Soon after, he moved cross country and earned a Master’s degree in acting from New York University’s grad program.

Directed by Kenny Leon, Smart People has quite a cast – Anne Son, Joshua Jackson, Tessa Thompson and Ali – and recently they assembled to talk with press before its upcoming limited run.

In doing so, Ali offered some quick off-the-cuff remarks on what he has derived from working on his character in Luke Cage. Said the tall, 41-year-old actor about his bad guy persona, “He’s so different from the play’s character. Coupled with that being done on stage, it is such a different experience from working on [a television series]. I realized how different a world he came from, and from what I know.

“That guy is such a villain. He’s from such a different world from this one. I felt like I was able to transform myself into him – on the day. I successfully transformed myself despite the fact that he was such a challenging character. That’s all I can say now. But I was glad to do a character that was so challenging.

Mahershala Ali at the Second Stage Theater.

Mahershala Ali at the Second Stage Theater.

“I don’t really compare any of the characters I play. I try to go into them being very open to what the characters can offer, what I can bring to them and then bring a being to life.”

Ali also offered his own thoughts on the lack of racial diversity stirred by the recent controversy swirling about the Oscars: “For me it’s not a new conversation, it’s been the conversation. It’s not new information for me. For others maybe, but for me – where I might be the only black person on the project – it’s nothing new.

“It’s about very talented writers, directors, producers, and actors being in a position for their projects to be supported but there’s just not enough black projects being made. [That’s the real problem.] There not enough going into production so that we can tout them. Look at Precious… In order for them to stand out, they have to get made in the first place. That’s just not happening enough.”

After seeing Ali playing his character Jackson in Diamond’s latest meditation on race and culture – with his huge chip on shoulder and a seriously abrasive manner – it seemed like some of the villainous character he plays in Luke Cage rubbed off.

Of course, that’s really a testament to his skills. In person, he’s a really gracious guy, quick to answer serious questions with a deliberation and determination – a far cry from either character. Next on his calendar: Ali stars in Gary Ross’s upcoming civil war era drama, The Free State of Jones, opposite Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and Keri Russell.

What follows is his take on the play, its powerful impact and his career developments.

What was it like working with such an accomplished director as Kenny Leon?

Kenny’s been really wonderful. He’s so honest and upfront. He doesn’t pull any punches, but it’s never [negative]. He’s always constructive, but he’s straight up. He definitely expects you to carry the weight and discover [your character]. He’s a wonderful collaborator and terrific director. It’s been a joy and wonderful working with him.

Joshua Jackson, Tessa Thompson, Anna Son and Mahershala Ali at the Second Stage Theater.

Joshua Jackson, Tessa Thompson, Anne Son and Mahershala Ali at the Second Stage Theater.

You have done television and films. How and why did you chose to do this theatrical production at this time?

I appreciate the challenge. This stands out for me. The material is so strong and rich. It was impossible to say no to the opportunity to play this character. It’s been very challenging for me to voice the concerns of this character.

We are thrown back to Obama’s first election. It was such tense time in our society and yet so exciting as well. What do you remember?

Exactly that, a mix of emotions. A lot of hope but it also brought up so many issues that were happening – and still happening. My grandfather supported Hillary. Funny, in the play it’s full of so many different perspectives and point of views, so I really appreciated that time. We haven’t really had a time like that.

Tessa Thompson, Joshua Jackson, Mahershala Ali and Anna Son in "Smart People."

Tessa Thompson, Joshua Jackson, Mahershala Ali and Anna Son in “Smart People.”

What kind of conversations does your character Jackson having during this time period?

On a very personal level, Jackson is just dealing with being viewed as insubordinate. It has more to do with being a black man in a world where he is very much an outlier. Somewhat outside of what would be his norm and so therefore is being misunderstood. Perhaps someone who looks like Jackson, [it’s tough] biting their tongue, often enough, [to be] fitting in and riding the wave until they get what they want.

Jackson isn’t someone [who has it] in him to bite his tongue. He is going to speak up and so he is quickly viewed as the angry black man. In some ways he is, but it’s a very complicated time to excel with everything that he’s done. Now he’s at a point where no matter how great he is, he has reached a ceiling. A gatekeeper has to let him in if they so choose to. I think that is what’s frustrating. That is a lot of what Jackson is dealing with – and he and Brian [Joshua Jackson] talk about that.

Joshua Jackson and Mahershala Ali in "Smart People."

Joshua Jackson and Mahershala Ali in “Smart People.”

What kind of emotional journey did you take on to do this play?

I’m still very much experiencing it. I’m trying to learn and ask questions. Dealing with this character everyday – his history and dealing with society where we are now but also where we were eight years ago. Jackson is outlier in own community. [He has to exceed] expectation [and excel] academic ally in studying to be a neurosurgeon. That makes him an outlier in the Boston medical world [and his own as well]. With combination those two things, he doesn’t have anyone that he can necessarily relate to. In that way, it’s challenging being on that island for that character.

It actually ends up making Jackson’s relationship with Joshua’s character that much deeper and more important. In some ways because of Brian’s own trajectory, they can relate to [each other] in a way. In their own homes and own areas where they’re from, other people can’t relate to them.

Tessa Thompson and Mahershala Ali star in "Smart People."

Tessa Thompson and Mahershala Ali star in “Smart People.”

He studying to be surgeon. He is in his residency right now. He intended to be a brain surgeon. He’s having a bit of trouble with that because of race, politics, and the dynamic of that world. And him being a black man in Boston so he’s seen it through a black person’s minds. Of his relationship with Joshua’s character – Brian, who is also somewhat of an older guy but also a black sheep in his family – the two of them come together. They have an extraordinary friendship because they’re both sort of oddities.

Do you think the premise of the show is now more relevant than the time when it was set?

It’s relevant in part because it would take several more years or decades to be able to have this conversation about race that is honest – so in that way it is even more relevant. You can tear off all those layers and you’re back towards the center of talking about it, as opposed to having to be very conscious. Not knowing if it’s okay to talk about it in the world we are living in as real human beings.

Anne Son and Mahershala Ali star in "Smart People."

Anne Son and Mahershala Ali star in “Smart People.”

In this world that [Lydia] has made, the conversations that they have cut to the chase.  In that way, you get to hear things within its two hour and 45 minute mark stuff that cuts to the heart of [things that going on right now]. And it makes us all think about where we have [to be on these issues – success, race, authenticity…]

[The two hour plus live production began previews on January 26, 2016 at Second Stage Theatre’s Tony Kiser Theatre. Opening night is set for February 11 and runs until March 6th.]

Copyright ©2016 All rights reserved. Posted: February 5, 2016.

Photos 1-3 ©2016 Brad Balfour. 

Photos 4-8 ©2016 Courtesy of Second Stage Theater.  All rights reserved.


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