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Behind The Scenes

Exclusive: Kimberly Scott Talks Sweat, Nottage Vs. Wilson, & What Inspires Her

Kimberly Scott has spent 30 years honing her craft in a distinguished and successful career in film, television, and theatre. A Tony Award nominee for her performance as “Molly” in August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Scott has maintained longevity in a fickle profession that’s not known for its kindness to African American actresses by carefully moving from project to project in every genre. And her latest role in Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage’s Sweat further cements her ability to seamlessly transition into a role that encounters challenges that many have faced and beckons her take her talents to new heights.

With more than 40 film and television projects under her belt, and having shared the screen with the likes of Forest Whitaker, Bernie Mac, Don Cheadle, Robert Duvall, Salma Hayek, and Jenna Elfman, this Texas native and Yale School of Drama grad admits that theatre is her first love – embracing and reveling in the energy that’s shared with a live audience.

“It’s a sacred triangle between you, your fellow colleagues onstage, and the audience. There’s a synergy there that doesn’t exist with a camera,” Scott says.

Nottage’s Sweat is a timely and relevant piece that delves into the impact of corporate buyouts, outsourcing, and the disappearance of manufacturing jobs on human capital. Nottage set the play in a small town to “explore America’s industrial decline at the turn of the millennium by examining the inhabitants of one Pennsylvania town who still struggle to reclaim what’s lost, find redemption and redefine themselves in a new century.” Sweat premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in August and is now headed to the Arena Stage’s Kreeger Theater in Washington, DC, where it opens on January 15 and runs through February 21.

Scott is cast in the role of “Cynthia” one of two friends for life who work at a local factory in Reading, Pa. Tracey (Johanna Day) is white; and Cynthia is black. Their friendship is tested when Cynthia is promoted to management, causing a painful rift with Tracey, who had also applied. Tracey attributes Cynthia’s selection to tokenism.

In an exclusive, wide-ranging interview with Broadway Black, Scott discussed her latest role, her thoughts on comparisons of Nottage and Wilson, and other topics.

Kimberly ScottWhat is it about the role of Cynthia that drew you to it?

I know Lynn’s work and she’s a beast, she’s amazing, and opens windows into people’s souls, her character’s souls that are just astonishing and lovely. I had not even read the play when I said “yes.” I knew it was going to be beautiful. I knew it was Lynn, and I went, “I’m in. Can I read it?” They said, “We only have the first act. We only have the first act.” I said, “Let me read it.” I was like, “Okay, if you think…” they’re like, “Yeah, we think.” Then, about a month before we started, I got to read the whole play, and it blew my mind.

Reviewers have sometimes compared Nottage to August Wilson, particularly as it relates to dialogue. Do you see any similarities between the two, having worked with both of them?

I think that the joy in the language is absolutely there. That joy, that familiarity, that humanity, is absolutely comparable and the same, and glorious. It’s glorious, the way she makes these people that are completely familiar. You know who they are. You know these people, you know their situation, and you know their feeling. She does not write things that are easy. They’re beautiful mountains, they are beautiful mountains that you have to climb. You can’t see it, when they call places you can’t see the top. Somehow, you have to take it one scene at a time, one moment at a time. I feel that way about Sweat. You take it one moment at a time, you take it one scene at a time, you keep breathing, and you keep going forward in the experience of these characters in the play.

That was the way it was with August. Very, very keen ear for his own work. That’s the thing they have in common, the keen ear and also the joy. She has a great joy in the room. August would lean back and laugh and enjoy it. She enjoys hearing your experience of what she’s written. She enjoys you turning on the lights in this rooms that she’s furnished. It’s beautiful; it’s really quite beautiful.

“Cynthia” faces some very real issues when she gets the promotion – allegations of tokenism. Some of us have felt that at some point in life. As an actress who’s played very diverse roles, have you ever encountered anything like that and what was your response? Did your response affect how you handled that in the role?

Doing the play, telling this story is so familiar for so many of us. It’s so familiar. I had so many women walk up to me and say, “Girl, girl let me tell you. Girl.” It’s having that experience of suffering and questioning the value of your own ambition.

It’s hard because ambition is hard enough; self-esteem is hard enough. Then, to become a tool, to have it all, to be used in the way that she gets used, is hard. It’s hard to tell the story because it’s familiar. I really think that if you have any ambition at all, if you have any sense of self-esteem or achievement as an African-American woman in America, you can understand what Cynthia goes through. It’s tough to lean into what it is that she goes through with her friends. It’s not simple, it’s class, it’s race; it’s all of that. Friendship on top of that, and camaraderie, and 20 years of experience, 30 years of experience, it’s tough. It doesn’t matter who you are, it’s close.

Screen Shot 2016-01-25 at 2.46.43 PMThe play opens at Arena Stage DC on January 15. You’ve played there before in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, what will it be like to go back?

Every audience is different, but to do this play in Washington DC, so close to the area that this is talking about, so close. There will be exponentially more people who not only have had an experience like it, but will know exactly what we’re talking about. On top of that, possibly people in the audience who will have a possible way to affect the situation, policy wise, that’s very gratifying. I look forward to, possibly, the congressmen and senators, and people from the various departments of the U.S. Government who could come and see this play and understand, maybe, on a more fundamental level, what’s happening. I think that Lynn has written a play that is as illuminating to the deindustrialization of America and this moment in history that we’re at, as Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman was to that moment in American history – for the American working man.

For someone with such an impressive and enviable body of work, how have you been able to maintain longevity in a profession where people often get discouraged and give up, or they just can’t get the roles?

There came a moment when my dad died. It got real, as they say. I realized, life is finite, and daylight is burning. I was living in Los Angeles and when you live in Los Angeles, you do television and film, you tend to turn down a lot of theater to wait around for film work and television work. When my dad died I had just done a play and I realized how much I missed doing theater. I was doing theater over the years, but not as much as I could have been doing. I wasn’t doing everything that I was offered. I had this moment where I realized, “Wow, I need to follow my bliss. I need to do that. I need to trust that everything’s going to come out okay. I need to go ahead and do what’s offered to me because it’s coming to me for a reason.” I just decided, I’m not going to turn down nothing but my hat.

I’m Buddhist. My practice is so much about really attracting things and not chasing after my fortune. I’m not trying to chase after my fortune anymore. I’m really trusting that my fortune is coming to me. Ever since I’ve really tried to stand in that truth, it’s been great

Screen Shot 2016-01-25 at 2.46.55 PMWhat is it that inspires you?

My colleagues inspire me endlessly, their courage, their bravery. We have three new cast members and just the opportunity to rediscover the play with new people, that’s inspiring, as well as the experience of discovering it the first time with the people who originated their roles. I have a profound belief that the first cast leaves DNA in the play, there’s no getting around that.

When you do world premieres, you’re crafting an experience. You’re crafting a play. You’re crafting this thing, telling this story. You have these actors telling this story, this way. You’ve got a director working on it and on the way we tell that story, but no matter who the director is, and the playwright, and the words that the playwright has brought to the table, and we tell that story, there’s no getting around the fact that the first cast puts a stamp on it.

For tickets to see Scott in Sweat at the Arena Stage’s Kreeger Theater in Washington, DC, visit here.

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