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Q&A With Mercy Street’s McKinley Belcher III

A KCTS 9 Exclusive Interview

By KCTS 9
January 9, 2017

The second season of PBS’s acclaimed series Mercy Street returns January 22, 2017 on KCTS 9. The story, which is set in Virginia during the Civil War, follows the lives and the difficulties faced by the people of the Mansion House Hospital.

We spoke with cast member McKinley Belcher III — who plays Samuel Diggs, a Black laborer with a secret talent for medicine — about his character’s growth and struggles, how playing Samuel has changed his perspective on being Black in America, and more. 

For those who are just finding their way to the show, can tell us about your character, Samuel Diggs, and what he brings to the series?

McKinley Belcher III: Samuel Diggs is a freeman from Philadelphia. His parents were servants in a doctor’s house, so he grew up serving as a sort of unofficial apprentice to Dr. Berenson. Given his proximity to the medical practice, he has an impressive amount of medical knowledge and ability. In 1862, a Black man could not serve as a doctor or even as an orderly in a White hospital, so he gets a job as a laborer at Mansion House Hospital. I believe he’s voluntarily come down to Union-occupied Alexandria to both gain some practical experience close to the epicenter of the war, and to be an agent in the change he wants to see in the world.

There’s also an element of a young man stepping out into the world on his own terms, far from the umbrella of home, parents and his makeshift mentor. When we think about the Civil War and Black folk, most people jump to a slave narrative. And while that’s an incredibly important truth to be told, it is not the only truth to be told. I think Samuel offers a different perspective of the war: a Black man who has not known the lash, ownership, a man for whom slavery is somewhat foreign. He is still a Black man in the 1860s, so his life is far from privileged and not without its complications regarding race, class and identity.

He steps into the world of Alexandria and there is so much about it that is foreign to him. He has to learn to navigate identity, and he becomes adept at managing people’s expectations as they make various assumptions about who he is and who he should be. Providing that perspective and voice is incredibly important, especially as we get further into the war. That’s what’s most exciting about our show, a range of voices that make up a full-bodied American experience of the war.

Photo: Nurse Mary Phinney (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Samuel Diggs (McKinley Belcher III). Courtesy of Antony Platt/PBS

How has Samuel grown from Season 1 to Season 2?

MB: I think Samuel has a lot of progressive ideas about how the war will affect the lives of Black folk, and I also think he has a lot of romantic ideas about what he will be allowed to do in the hospital. He truly believes if people see what he is capable of, if they see how hard he works, and they witness the strength of his character, he’ll be allowed to eventually take on more fitting responsibilities in the hospital. I think he wants to believe he lives in a world where he could become a doctor under the tutelage of Doctor Foster and prove himself.

His end goal is clear, but every possible hurdle is thrown in his way. Samuel spent a lot of Season 1 trying to gain the trust of people like Nurse Mary and Dr. Foster, and gauging the safety of revealing his truth to more and more people in the hospital. He also fell in love with Aurelia Johnson and spent a lot of time trying to earn her trust. He risked so much to not only open his heart to her, but to reunite her family so her heart could be available to him.

Season 2 threatens to strip him of everything he’s worked so hard for, and demands that he grow up a little. What kind of a man must he be if people see his genius in the hospital and still deny him access, and if the love he’s worked so hard to have simply isn’t possible? If all his effort seems futile and his whole tenure at the hospital feels like a revelation of his own naivety…what kind of man is he then? And if this is an inhospitable environment for him to become the man he wants to be, should he stay? These are the questions Season 2 asks of him. In the course of finding answers, he steps more fully into his manhood.

How did you get involved with Mercy Street? What drew you to this project?

MB:My agent sent me an audition appointment for Mercy Street in early March, 2015. I remember having two scenes to prepare and they sent me the script for the first episode or two. My first reaction was just based on the fact that it was written well. I read for Roxann Dawson, who directed the first three episodes of Season 1, and a few of the executive producers. Auditions can be really awkward sometimes, but the energy in the room was actually great. Almost a month later they asked me to come back in with the casting director, Mark Saks, and do the scenes with a few slight adjustments. A few days later I found out I booked the job and that I was to be in Richmond a few days later to begin production.

It’s funny, Mercy Street came at the perfect time, and I was eager to do a project that was set in this period on TV or film. I was eager to experience what I hoped would be catharsis from connecting to and unpacking this history in dramatic narrative form. I think our past gives us context for understanding our present; if we prove good stewards of that knowledge and actually look at ourselves for what/who we are, we’re hopefully armed with the tools to ignite progress. The past may not provide comprehensive answers, but I do believe it leads directly to the right questions. Artistically, I get to go on that investigative journey each season.

Photo: Dr. Jedediah Foster (Josh Radnor)and Samuel Diggs (McKinley Belcher III). Courtesy of Antony Platt/PBS

Has playing Samuel — a free black man working as a laborer — given you a new perspective on what it was like to be Black in America during this time? How has the role influenced your perception of being Black in America today?

MB: It’s absolutely shaped my perspective! On just a practical level, I felt really physically imprinted by the experience of doing the show. I remember in Season 1, after we shot the lynching scene, I could feel the rope that was around my neck and binding my wrists for the next couple of days. Being left with that sensation after a few takes was interesting, because it followed me in my dreams and thoughts. I also found myself carrying heavy stuff (boxes, books, food, supplies, etc.) in just about every scene. I’d get back to the hotel sometimes after a long day and feel the day’s work in my body. I’m grateful for these physical sensations because they aren’t even a fraction of what people actually experienced, but they give my imagination enough room to empathize and ultimately understand on a level that a book could never provide.

The reality is that lynching was commonplace, and most Black folk were relegated to manual labor, slave or not. This isn’t new information to me, but intellectually understanding this and really experiencing it are two different things. Also, as a grown 32-year-old man, I remember internally bristling at being called “boy” so frequently. I found it emasculating. These are all important things for me to feel if I am to honor the truth of this time. 

Photo: Samuel Diggs (McKinley Belcher III).  Courtesy of PBS/Erik Heinila.When I think about Samuel, I’m left with the overwhelming and lingering feeling of being socially straightjacketed by other people’s preconceived notions about who you are or who you should be allowed to be. People walk up to him and are interacting with their own ideas and projections rather than the flesh-and-blood person standing in front of them. He’s not only trying to wade through these preconceptions, he’s also constantly bumping up against them because they are inherently reductive. The whole purpose of his coming here involves progressing and expanding his sense of self into more than he was (not less).

Samuel finds his sanity in understanding that the misapplied labels have way more to do with other people’s fear than anything to do with who he actually is. I think that’s really apt in 2016. I have personal experience with being stopped, searched, cuffed and put in the back of a police car for no other reason than I am a Black man. The sheer volume of times this has happened to me makes me wonder what it is that cops see when I’m in the driver’s seat or simply walking down the street. What image have they conjured that makes their action so disproportionate to who/what I actually am?

At the center of the Black Lives Matter movement is a desire to dismantle the way America, at large, looks at young Black men. People argue about the details of individual cases, but no one can argue with the mass of lives that has been taken unnecessarily and the subsequent massive lack of accountability. This is a truth I live. Acknowledging that the pattern is systemic is incredibly important. I believe we have to ask ourselves why young Black men are viewed as inherently dangerous. Why does a black or brown face still incite fear? What is at the root of that fear? Why are young Black men disproportionately policed? I find people try to provide easy answers to these questions, and most of those answers blame the victim. And that’s a problem.

I’m bowled over by the strength it takes to know oneself and deal with this kind of bias in silence, as Samuel so frequently must do. In 2016, we have the luxury of speaking directly to said bias. “Calling it out,” by way of public discourse, demands that it be dealt with. At the end of the day, I’m most thirsty for us to stop running from it, stop pretending we’re in some post-racial world where it doesn’t exist, and collectively deal with it. I hope the show continues to probe me in ways that pique my curiosity, challenge me to think and evolve my understanding.

Photo: Samuel Diggs (McKinley Belcher III). Courtesy of PBS/Erik Heinila

Did the show airing on PBS factor in to your decision to take the job? Did you grow up watching PBS?

MB: I wouldn’t say that the show being on PBS is necessarily why I took the job; that had more to do with the writing and how unique I thought Samuel was as a character. But the show being on PBS was definitely a fringe benefit. We work so hard on projects like this so that they can ultimately be seen and digested. It’s nice to be doing a show that literally everyone has access to.

And I definitely grew up watching Sesame Street and later Arthur. In fact, I have a much younger brother, by about 16 years, and I remember watching Arthur with him and even later with my nephew. I’m also a fan of the Tavis Smiley Show and Finding Your Roots, I still watch both now. Just looking at what’s happening around us in the world, now more than ever, it feels important to create art that is resonant, that means something and either speaks to the change we need to have or the truth we need to see. I feel like the range of programming on PBS honors that. So I, in turn, am honored to be on PBS.

Mercy Street not only provides entertainment to viewers, but it acts as a source of history lessons for many. Did you know a lot about the Civil War before joining the cast? What was something new you took away from this experience?

MB: Between high school and college, I think I had a pretty good fundamental grasp of the Civil War, but that’s mostly dates, timelines, battles, political outcomes and geography. Mercy Street asked me to approach the Civil War from a very different perspective than I ever had. It’s one thing to have an awareness of data and facts, and to contemplate the historical significance of a moment; but investigating the war from the inside out, if you will, from the perspective of everyday folks, is really eye-opening. It’s easy to overlook that peoples’ lives don’t suddenly stop just because a war has begun. They have to figure out a way to endure, and against some incredible odds.

I don’t remember hearing the word “contraband” until I’d begun prepping for Season 1 of Mercy Street. I’m grateful that playing this role has led me down a rabbit hole of books that have opened my mind and heart to a much deeper understanding of what it was like to be Black in America at that time. And that isn’t necessarily a singular experience; the plurality of it all is really interesting. I’m so pleased that this season we go deeper into the lives of the contraband population; and I hope as the show continues, we can fully investigate the lives of colored infantrymen, officers and commissioned surgeons too. The bit of research I’ve gotten to do on the colored troops revealed so much that I had not been exposed to in school — neither college nor high school. The diversity of perspective is one of the things that makes the show interesting to me. I’d also love to get a greater understanding of where Native Americans fit in the Civil War narrative.

Photo: Samuel Diggs (McKinley Belcher III) and Charlotte Jenkins (Patina Miller). Courtesy of PBS/Erik Heinila

One can only imagine how intense and heavy the shooting days can be. How do you unwind? What other ways do you express yourself creatively?

MB: I love to run. So while we were shooting Mercy Street in Richmond, I would sometimes start or end my day that way. At the end of a long day it’s a good palate cleanser. The run to Belle Isle was my favorite. More than any other TV cast I’ve been a part of, the Mercy Street cast/crew is its own brand of family. We eat and hang out together. So I just feel a lot of support, trust and love. That makes the harder days a lot easier to endure. Everyone’s there to roll up their sleeves and find our way to the truth. And when you’re in the thick of it, it feels like everyone’s rooting for you. That’s not something I’ve felt on every set I’ve been on.

The best remedy to a hard day, other than maybe running, is just sleep. And in terms of other ways that I express myself, I play the sax. So I love music. I actually didn’t bring my sax down with me this last season, but I definitely will for Season 3, because I missed it. I also write a good bit. I’ve felt really inspired by being in the midst of so many talented people who are hyphenates. Josh Radnor specifically has really inspired me to continue writing. On some level you can’t be afraid of or wait for permission to create the change you want to see in the world. If the film is in your head, write it. I’d run into Josh at a nearby coffee shop or in the courtyard, or just talking to him about it on set; it’s a reminder of the discipline it takes to write to completion, but also the liberation.

Like many actors, your experience started with stage work. What do you love about live theater? How have those experiences helped you in your on camera work?

MB: I really love language. My life in the theater has allowed me the opportunity to speak beautiful language tackling huge ideas. In many ways, living a well-written play feels like playing and experiencing music to me. I get the same goose bumps, the same chill up my spine, and it’s the same kind of high.

An added joy of performing onstage is that there’s this elevated sense of connection between people. That energy is so special and alive. And it’s there whether the play is comedic or dramatic. In an age where we’re increasingly dependent on electronic devices and the internet, there’s a beauty to people ritualistically connecting with other people in real time. Theater is the only place I get to commune with an audience in this way, without a filter. No take two, no editor, no screen to detach from. And I really love that.

Photo: Samuel Diggs (McKinley Belcher III). Courtesy of PBS/Erik Heinila. Theater is also a real exercise in long-form storytelling. You may have to sustain “life under imaginary circumstances” for 90 minutes to as long as three hours. That’s hours of being fully engaged, from head to toe. It sometimes feels like a grand act of generosity to me, because it’s important that it is an act of sharing, of “giving.” Not to the point of feeling forced in any way, but there’s an openness and a different vocal requirement. There is no such obligation in front of the camera. I need only find a way to have a truthful experience, the sharing or “giving” of it is someone else’s responsibility and something I often have little control over. It’s nice not to be responsible for that sometimes.

Also, I really appreciate that you actually get a real rehearsal period in the theater. This has taught me so much about how to break down a script; how to understand a character’s arc, while honoring the larger story/world around you; and generally how to talk about the work. When you get on set, for TV/film, there can be this overwhelming sense of a ticking clock and little to no time to do much rehearsal, everything can feel really rushed. The work onstage has armed me with the ability to do all that work a lot faster and sometimes with no assistance or dialogue with a director. Mercy Street is an exception to this, but you’d be surprised at the number of times there’s been no dialogue about what story we’re telling, why things are happening, it’s literally hit the ground running and figure out where everyone should stand (i.e., blocking) and start shooting. In these moments my experience in the theater serves me well. Also when directors want to do long takes, for example in NBC’s Chicago PD, we strung a bunch of scenes together and did eight or nine page takes, which made some actors really nervous. But when you’ve done whole plays, nine pages is nothing.

Rapid fire questions:

Theater or Television?

MB: Theater will always be my first love; it’s taught me so much as an artist and a storyteller. And it’s where I got my start. That being said, I really hope I never have to choose. In an ideal world I’d get to bounce between TV, film and theater on a regular basis. I think they each have their own unique virtues and inform one another. At the end of the day, no matter the medium, it’s about finding the truth of the moment.

Book or Kindle?

MB: Definitely books! I’m a tactile person. I love the smell of books and having something with weight and pages to turn. I really love hardback books.

Favorite musical?

MB:That’s a hard one, I haven’t seen many. First one I ever saw was Rent on Broadway, and it was an amazing experience. I’ve yet to see Hamilton, but I suspect I’d love it. The last musical that moved me was off-Broadway at the Public Theatre; it was called Fortress of Solitude. This actor, Kyle Beltran, blew me away. There was such a vulnerability, an innocence, and somehow still a strength to what he was doing onstage.

Go-to breakfast meal?

MB: When I’m on set, oatmeal (with brown sugar), turkey bacon and fruit. When I’m out and about in New York City, it’s probably egg and cheese on a croissant. And when I’m just lounging at home, its kind of a non-event: probably just a banana or a smoothie. Every now and then I go all out and make pancakes or biscuits, eggs, grits, sausage and orange juice. I think that’s the Southern boy in me. That was a Saturday morning breakfast in my family.

What song do you play to pump you up?

MB: That’s a cool question. It’s so hard to pick one. On my way to auditions, I find myself listening to that song “Lose Yourself” by Eminem and I really like a newer song by Jidenna called “Long Live the Chief.” While we were shooting Mercy Street, I found myself listening to that song “Glory” by Common and John Legend, Kendrick Lamar’s “The Blacker the Berry” and a spiritual called “No More Auction Block for Me.” When I’m feeling slightly more spiritual or like I need to remind myself that “it” is bigger than me, I listen to Smokie Norful’s “I Need You Now.”


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KCTS 9 staff consists of experienced journalists and videographers, producing local stories on the issues that shape the greater Seattle area. More stories by KCTS 9

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