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“A Most Interesting Series of Events”

Tré Cotten ’07 Brings Experience and Instinct to His Work as a Dialect Coach

By David Klein | Back to Table of Contents


In 2018, Tré Cotten ’07 was playing seven roles in a play called “Kim’s Convenience” at a theater in Vancouver, British Columbia, when he had a moment of insight. Several local actors in the cast had asked him for his help in developing a “neutral American sound” for their characters. Cotten, who also teaches acting, suddenly saw his unique set of skills in a new light.

“As a Black and Indigenous actor, and as an educator, I realized what I could do,” he said. From there, Cotten — a versatile stage veteran versed in musicals, plays and Shakespeare — turned his attention to dialect coaching.

Cotten’s stage work spans musicals, plays and Shakespeare, such as his role as Marc Antony in the Virginia Shakespeare Festival’s production of “Julius Caesar” (at left) and as the Prince in “Cinderella” (at right). Photos courtesy of Tré Cotten.

Humanizing “titans”

Recently, Cotten fulfilled that role to considerable acclaim in the film “One Night in Miami,” which premiered in January and has been nominated for numerous awards, including three Golden Globes and three Academy Awards. He has received accolades from the actors he worked with, and the New York Times recently covered his groundbreaking work in bringing an authentic sound to Black characters in the film.

Ordinarily, a dialect coach works with actors portraying fictional characters, but in this project Cotten guided actors in re-creating some of the most iconic voices of the 1960s: “One Night in Miami” dramatizes an evening that brings together Malcolm X, Jim Brown, Sam Cooke and Cassius Clay (soon to become Muhammad Ali) in 1964, in the hours following Clay’s heavyweight championship victory over Sonny Liston. The four men talk long into the night about the struggle for civil rights and the divisions plaguing American society.

“In ‘One Night in Miami’ we get these titans of men, these planets, and we’re making it so they’re human,” Cotten said.

While his primary job as dialect coach is to fulfill the vision of the director and honor the story, he noted that he must also be mindful of “honest facts.” “Where is this person from? What is the history of that specific place? We’re creating not just the character but also the voice and the time in history. The 1960s had a different bop to it, man. The music of the time represents the language of the people,” he said.

In coaching an actor to develop an authentic voice for a given character, Cotten employs techniques he developed in his theater work and as an educator, along with some tactics that seem more the product of instinct. In his work with Eli Goree, who portrayed Cassius Clay in “Miami,” Cotten had the actor deliver lines while rehearsing boxing scenes. 

“When we think about creating a human being [in a film], we have to create one who can do all human things,” Cotten said. “He has to talk while he’s boxing, like Ali did. We have proof that he did that, so we can’t skip any steps.”

For the play “Kim’s Convenience,” Cotten played seven different roles, leading to his realization that his experience and instinct had prepared him for work as a dialect coach.

Practicing empathy

A graduate of UNC-Wilmington, where he discovered his love of acting, and the University of Washington, where he earned an MFA in Acting, Cotten credits his success as a dialect coach to his education and experience as an actor. “To have that foundation of training is something not all dialect coaches have,” he said.

When he was at Ravenscroft, his passion was basketball. Varsity basketball coach Kevin Billerman was an early influence on his work ethic, he said, but attending Ravenscroft gave him more than that.

“Ravenscroft taught me to buckle down and challenge myself but also to be open to people from different communities than mine. I met people from different walks of life and different races, and I learned. I just had to listen,” he said. “One of the most beautiful things as an actor, as an artist, is we get to practice empathy — to put ourselves in somebody else’s shoes for a living.”

Surveying his various successes — on the basketball court, on the stage and in his current work — Cotten is appreciative of the journey. “It’s been the most interesting series of events,” he said, “but it’s also been really fulfilling because I’m able to help and give to my culture.”

Above, Cotten, kneeling at center, performs in “Cinderella” at Theater Under the Stars in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Starting his theatrical career with ensemble work, Tré Cotten ’07 was soon playing monumental roles, from Booker T. Washington in “Ragtime” to Mark Antony in “Julius Caesar.” Here are three performances that helped shape his career.

“Smokey Joe’s Cafe”

Opera House Theatre Company, Wilmington (2009)

The thrill of earning a role in this small ensemble piece and working with skilled director Ray Kennedy had a seismic effect on Cotten, buoying his confidence and sharpening his skills profoundly.

“The Color Purple”

Thalian Hall, Wilmington (2012)

Cotten had dreamed of performing in musicals like “The Color Purple” and “The Lion King.” This was his first experience performing with an all-Black cast, and he felt a special affection for the multilayered role of Harpo.

“Kim’s Convenience”

Pacific Theatre, Vancouver (2018)

It was during this production, inspired by his castmates’ requests for guidance and his own work to perfect his characters’ various patois, that Cotten first found his path to dialect coaching.

Cotten poses with his “Kim’s Convenience” castmates.