Smithfield Herald

From court to stage

Tre Cotten of Clayton performs a song in honor of his fellow graduates at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.
Tre Cotten of Clayton performs a song in honor of his fellow graduates at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. UNCW

Of all the plays and musicals Tré Cotten performed in during his time at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, one line stands out more than others.

“I’ll never fully understand how this all came about in the sequence in which it came about,” legendary actor Sidney Poitier said in “Six Degrees of Separation.” It’s a quote that resonates with Cotten.

Russell “Tré” Cotten III, 25, of Clayton graduated in May from UNC-Wilmington’s department of theater, where he focused his studies on performance and music. But his path didn’t begin in high school theater classes and drama clubs.

As Poitier’s words suggest, Cotten is still amazed at the direction his life is headed in after his experience at UNC-W.

Cotten played basketball at Clayton High School, then played for Ravenscroft School. “That’s all I did growing up was sports,” he said. “I had a God-given gift at sports.”

But by the time Cotten got to UNC-W, he had begun to lose his love for the sport. He went from balancing basketball and a brief track career to “not really knowing what to do.”

Then, he caught the “stage bug.”

“A teammate of mine on the track team had mentioned to me, ‘Hey, I’m in this musical downtown. You should go and audition for it.’ And at first I said, ‘A musical? Nah,’ ” Cotten said.

“I never thought about that. I’ve always wanted to do it but I was kind of nervous.”

Cotten’s first audition was for the musical “A Day in Hollywood, A Night in the Ukraine.”

After singing and dancing auditions, Cotten got his first part. “I was thrust up on the stage really quick,” he said.

“After that show, I was asked to be in another show and not even audition. And since then it grew on me like I would have never expected, and it took my life by storm. I completely fell passionately in love with this art form of the performing arts. And it’s weird because I’m a basketball player, and that’s what I did, I played basketball.”

At the time, Cotten was undecided in his major. He thought one had to be “the elite of elite” to succeed in the arts but learned this wasn’t necessarily the case and began taking more classes.

Path to a profession

The one musical that really changed Cotten as a performer was his role in “Smokey Joe’s Café.”

“I think this is the most important show that I can remember doing, because it literally helped me step up my game,” he said.

“You had to be a leading role and have your own character because it was a small cast. I never tried so hard because I wanted it so bad. And the show went very well; people loved it, so that helped my confidence.”

In his junior year of college, Cotten was cast as the lead role of Paul in “Six Degrees of Separation.”

“I fit the right age, and I fit the right description and everything for the character,” he said. “And it just seemed like it was my time, because at that point, I’d done only ensemble shows and I was known only as an ensemble guy. This was my chance at the real stage.

“This guy had to be very personable and be able to woo these people. I was able to draw from personal life to this character. And I can’t explain it. It was my time.”

Cotten received more leading roles after that performance. In his senior year, he learned “The Color Purple” musical would have auditions in Wilmington.

“You know you have certain shows that you want to do, and for me, being a black actor, it’s ‘The Color Purple’ and ‘The Lion King,’ ” he said.

“And it was the first time I was on stage in an all-black cast,” Cotten said. “And growing up as a church kid, as a preacher’s kid the Gospel is in me. All the riffs and runs I was at home.”

Cotten was nominated for Best Leading Actor for his performance in “Six Degrees of Separation” and won Best Supporting Male Actor in a Musical for his performance in “The Color Purple” at the Wilmington Theater Awards.

“The first award was Best Supporting Male Actor in a Musical and they called my name,” he said.

Cotten has decided to continue his education at the University of Washington in Seattle, where he will be one of six students pursuing a master’s degree in acting.

“I’m thankful to have gone to UNC-W because it has helped mold me as a person – not only as an artist but as a person through knowing people in other majors and having the support of people outside the theater department,” Cotten said.

“I believe that God brings us to situations for a purpose. Who would have thought me going to Wilmington as a basketball player would lead me to be a well-polished actor going to Seattle? I just feel truly blessed, and I’m thankful for my training at UNC-W.”