Truly, Madly, Intimately

Viola Davis breaks free from the tragic characters she is often corseted in

by Pamela Renner

People keep insisting that Viola Davis must be strong. Partly it's the roles she often plays, and the performances she delivers—displays of gut-wrenching, bone-crushing emotions that might turn a lesser actor into a pile of smoking ash. It makes her shrug, this strength that others so readily attribute to her.

She says, "You feel every day that you're all things and everything. Sometimes when people describe the kind of black woman I am—that's not me. I'm not always strong. I'm a little quirky at times, and sometimes I'm funny. Sometimes I am strong. I'm always amazed at how people see me. I think they don't see me—or if they do, they don't know what to do with the parts that they do see."

Related in American Theatre:

Salvation in the City of Bones, a survey of August Wilson by Randy Gener, May/June 2003

Dismantling the Box, an interview with Lynn Nottage by Lenora Inez Brown, and the complete text of Las Meninas, July/August 2001

Related from TCG Books:

Crumbs from the Table of Joy and Other Plays by Lynn Nottage. Includes Mud, River, Stone, Poof, Por'Knockers and Las Meninas.

The Fire This Time, an anthology including Crumbs from the Table of Joy by Lynn Nottage. Includes King Hedley II, by August Wilson.

What I Meant Was: New Plays and Selected One-Acts, by Craig Lucas. Includes God's Heart.

On the stage, Viola Davis makes it look easy to stitch all the parts together; she gives us the illusion that we can see right through the performance to the person inside. Her characters are flesh and blood. Once you've witnessed her in the theatre, you cannot forget the anguish, vulnerability or compassion that she has unleashed. Davis is the actress of her generation who most honestly and nakedly wears the mantle of tragedy. She makes you wonder—in passing—if this is what Antigone would be like if only she'd been born in St. Matthews, S.C., had grown up in Rhode Island and had survived into her thirties intact.

In August Wilson's 2001 play King Hedley II, Davis played Tonya—the role that garnered her a Tony as best featured actress. She played a 35-year-old mother fighting eloquently for the right to abort a pregnancy. Tonya isn't fighting against the sort of people who carry banners with sanctimonious slogans. She's not really fighting her husband, Hedley, who fathered the child and desperately wants to see her carry the pregnancy to term. (He loves her well enough to say: "My life is your life. Everything I do I do for you.") Tonya is fighting history.

The play is set in Pittsburgh's Hill District during the 1980s, a neighborhood virtually imploding from within. Davis wrestles a matchless pain that can drive a mother mad. "Look at Natasha," she says of the 17-year-old daughter she's already brought into the world. "I got to watch her get thrown down a hole it's gonna take a lifetime to crawl out of. I got to stand by and watch her." She lives in a world turned upside down by brutality and racism so pervasive as to be numbing. "I'm through with babies. I ain't raising no more. Why you want to bring another baby into this world that don't respect life?"

She's seen a kind of unraveling of the generations up close, watched children shoot children dead and grandchildren help diaper their newborn aunts and uncles. It would be easy enough to say she's fighting her own doubt. But Tonya—and Davis herself—knows that much more is at stake in a world where mothers regularly outlive their sons.

When the play's title character, King Hedley II, tries to change her mind, Davis turns her back to him for one crucial moment, pressing her hands against a brick wall. Her shoulders heave. We don't see her face, only the gesture—the woman's arms and hands raised against the brick wall. Like the blinded Samson in the biblical story, she's ready to pull down the house by its foundations.

Davis sits at an outdoor caf√© near the Roundabout Theatre Company's new Off-Broadway home, the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, where she has been starring in the inaugural production of Lynn Nottage's Intimate Apparel in the center's 400-seat house, the Laura Pels Theatre. The play has won a raft of prizes, and Davis herself has garnered acting awards and acclaim for her performance as Esther, a shy seamstress who keeps a yearning for joy bound up tightly within—until a courtship by letter changes her life. After completing its run in New York, the play moves to the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, where it runs through Sept. 12.

Intimate Apparel is set in 1905 New York. Esther receives a letter from a laboring man, originally from Barbados, who is working on the construction of the Panama Canal. The conditions he writes about are lethal. But George seems resolute in body and soul. Though he's never met Esther, he falls in love with her letters, proposes marriage, arrives in New York and takes her to the altar. Her friends think it's foolish, but Esther is determined to gamble her security for a chance at happiness.

"There is this tempest raging inside Viola in a stillness—it's like lightning in a bottle," says Intimate Apparel director Daniel Sullivan. "There's a kind of transparency to her work. You can see right through to what's happening inside her."

The playwright agrees: "I was interested in creating a woman who is not aware of her inner strength and power because it wouldn't have been discussed—but she is a woman whom people are drawn to," the playwright avows. "Viola is very much like Esther. I don't think she's a woman who's aware of her incredible beauty and strength. I love watching her. I can see her working every moment; I see her making discoveries. She has a real respect for her craft. I don't know that I've ever worked with anyone who is quite as disciplined and well prepared when she enters the rehearsal room."

Davis herself puts it this way: "Basically, with my work, I've got to use the situation that the character is in. I always start with the need. And I do that work very specifically. I write it out. And I write out a memory that the character had as a child: something that drives her. It gives me an emotional life. If I concentrate on objectives—what do I want in a scene—then it gives it an earnestness without filling it up with emotion."

Intriguingly, the character of Esther Mills is loosely inspired by playwright Lynn Nottage's own great-grandmother. Nottage knows that somewhere on her family tree, right around the turn of the century, there was a woman seamstress whose photograph she has inherited. Little in the way of storytelling came along with the picture. "The character is an invention of my imagination," says Nottage. "I imagine her to be an ancestor. I feel a great deal of warmth for her."

Davis observes of the character: "With Esther, the challenge was knowing what to do in the silences when she's not speaking. And I have to tell you, that's a joy, because that's where craft comes in. What you have to do then is create an inner life for her; you have to create needs and desires that she necessarily can't even put into words." Davis's natural speaking voice is deep and rounded—perhaps more cello than viola. She's a born storyteller—unlike Esther, whose creations are the corsets she sews for others. As we talk, Davis's words resound above the cacophony of New York's mid-morning traffic.

"Then the biggest thing I have to do, once I do all that work—the biggest thing is to breathe, because I feel like breath is life. I feel like that's the one thing a lot of actors forget to do. It's like when you see a baby crying and you see their diaphragm: It's working overtime. And that's why they could scream for hours and never lose their voice.

"If I breathe, then," she continues, "it dislodges any emotion I have in there, and I allow myself to take a moment—take my moment—and not feel rushed, just speak absolutely when I'm ready to speak."

It's amazing to watch how much unvoiced emotion is packed into Davis's breathing as she portrays Esther: the way her chest rises and falls with longing when she enters the fabric shop of Mr. Marks, a young Hasidic man on the Lower East Side with whom she shares an impossible attraction; or the way she gasps with indignation when she realizes that her marriage to George is based on a mutual deceit. There is also a private smile that appears when she is caught unawares by delight.

"It's hard for me to use my own life" in shaping a role, Davis remarks, "because to me it doesn't match necessarily with the character. What I do use, though, is sense memory. The one thing you do get from your life when you grow up in a dysfunctional situation is that nobody's pretending to be anything other than who they are—so you see everybody for who they are. You don't grow up with any kind of preconceived notions about your parents. You saw their weaknesses and strengths from the get—go. And you remember that, in terms of human behavior."

From South Carolina, Davis and her family came north while she was still very little, so that her that father could find work grooming horses at the racetracks. Davis and her siblings grew up in Central Falls, R.I.—a rough, all-white community where the racism was naked as a newborn piglet. The family was far from well-off, and the children wound woolen scarves around their throats at night to ward off rat-bites. Viola and her sister Diana found some solace at the movies. By their late teens, both were seriously pursuing training in acting. It was clear that both Davis girls had the gift.

In college, Viola recalls participating in one acting class full of bright-eyed hopefuls. Her teacher was determined to knock some sense into them. He told everyone who wanted to be an actor to raise his or her hand. Then he bombarded the students with the hard facts of an actor's life: scarcity of work, financial hardships, cutthroat competition, cattle calls, no health insurance, no sick pay, bad breaks, bad agents, bad roles—you name it. One by one, the hands shot down. At the end of his rant, only Viola Davis still held her hand up high.

The brilliant midday sunlight is streaming down on Viola Davis, but she would probably glow even in a dark room. She has an unconventional beauty, with bittersweet chocolate skin, hooded, mercurial eyes, and an aura of physical courage that makes one think she might ride wild horses or conquer Mars. In fact, her multimedia roles have occasionally sent her into orbit—in Stephen Soderberg's film Solaris she played a scientist trapped in a deteriorating space station, and in the past season's television drama "Century City" she was cast as a lawyer from the future. Playwright Craig Lucas brought her back from the dead in God's Heart as a 10-foot-tall video projection in the Lincoln Center Theater production of the play. Davis is as rational as anyone, but she doesn't mind a little unearthliness.

A case in point: her first great role. As Vera in August Wilson's soaring Seven Guitars, she watched six angels descend from heaven and carry her dead lover Floyd "right on up in the sky." Davis played a young woman from Pittsburgh who could see through a man's prettiest lies. When Wilson wrote the role, he didn't compose it specifically for Viola Davis—for one thing, he hadn't met her yet. Wilson remembers, "Whoever we had in mind prior to her audition, we quickly forgot. Viola is luminous; she just shines on a stage. She just walks on and this light shines. I believe other people see it, too." Audiences could relate to Vera, Wilson observes, because "she didn't shy away from her vulnerability. She actually made that character easy to access." Director Lloyd Richards concurs: "Viola does not retreat. Her responses are considered and strong, flexible and versatile."

Davis herself remembers auditioning for the role, and doing a first reading with all her force and emotional power out in the open. Richards watched her carefully and gave her some advice: Take all that, he told her, and play it internally—with the same intensity under pressure.

She did, and the role was hers.

For Davis herself, the resilience of that performance grew out of a difficult time in her personal life. She was single. Acting took the lion's share of her emotional energy. Although she had a family she loved, her life could be lonely and harsh, and nothing in her considerable repertoire of artistry could prevent real-life tragedies from eroding the lives of those she loved.

Looking back now, from the perspective of her own profoundly fulfilling marriage of five years to fellow actor Julius Tennon, she says: "It makes a difference to have a life—to have a life that's healthy and loving. It allows you to do what you do, and not work from a place of chaos. I mean, when I was doing Seven Guitars, I lost all my hair. The whole side of my head was bald, and I had a big bald patch on the top. It was terrible."

Davis had developed an autoimmune disease called alopecia areata. Fortunately, it was reversible. "Most times, I didn't feel like I was in stress," the actor recalls. "I was just not happy with myself and it came out. I mean, couldn't I lose some weight? But I lost my hair." She laughs, good-natured, at chaos recollected in tranquility.

Yes, tranquility. Viola Davis has seen some of her tempests grow calmer, if not subside altogether. And she's thankful. She and Tennon live full time in Los Angeles these days—a big change after 13 years in New York. She recalls meeting her future husband, and what a revelation it was to get to know him. She'd gotten to the point where she literally prayed to meet the right person. God proved unusually attentive.

Tennon impressed Davis on the very first date. He had the kind of absolute integrity she craved, and had almost stopped hoping she'd discover in anyone. "He was a single father for 16, 17 years; he raised his children by himself, as well as pursuing a career in acting. So he has character. He's a good man. And he endeared himself to me because he was different from anyone else I dated, because he was extraordinarily emotionally available and kind and generous."

She's proud that their relationship is a true partnership. It sustains her in many ways, tangible and intangible. "I can absolutely say that I'm happy," Davis adds, "but I also have to say that a responsibility comes with that."

It infuriates Davis that casting directors still think in broad racial stereotypes. "When I graduated from Juilliard," the actor says, "I remember thinking that there was no difference between me and any other student in the school; I wanted to do what they were doing. I want to do what Meryl Streep is doing. I always feel the travesty is, being a person of color, that when you see black movies, they're always urban and funny, with pretty much the same actors, which is not a bad thing. The travesty is when you're not that: I don't speak Ebonics. I'm too old to be a homegirl. I'm not funny like that—sitcom, WB-UPN funny. So if I'm not that, then sometimes to the acting community you can be considered nothing, as opposed to being a wide range of things."

In the theatre, Viola Davis has never exactly played the girl next door. She has been a convicted murderer who kills the man who raped her (Thulani Davis's Everybody's Ruby); a mother who refuses to bring any more children into a world of violence (King Hedley II); a nun who plays a deadly game of cat and mouse with a lustful duke (Shakespeare's Measure for Measure); a lesbian activist who's succumbing to cancer (God's Heart); and a young woman who sees angels ascending from the grave of the man she loved (Seven Guitars). Though she's done roles now considered classic—playing Ruth Lee in Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun at Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts, for example—she's largely made her mark by tackling new plays. Uncharted waters attract her. She loves to create a character.

That's one of the reasons she's grateful to Lynn Nottage for writing the kind of role she can invest with her full imagination. "Often, so many African-American stories are lost because they don't fit into a box of what people consider important to preserve." Davis says: "There are so many aspects of our personalities and lives that are just not delved into."

In Intimate Apparel, Esther's emotions don't follow the course of convention. Though it's impossible to say what will happen after the play ends, Davis hopes that Esther will continue to make bold choices. At the play's close, she is alone, facing her sewing machine. Yet she no longer resents this solitude; she's developed a sense of what it means to value her own selfhood.

Davis says: "You know, that's the greatest gift you can give to your child as a mother—to feel like you have some kind of self-worth and impart that knowledge to your children." In some way, Esther becomes mother to herself—learning to distinguish the falsehoods from the truths, discovering that what seemed so gorgeous on paper—her marriage, the chance to become Mrs. Armstrong—lacks a foundation in truthfulness.

A deeply honest woman, Esther learns what it means to be swindled by someone she's trusted, but also what it feels like to be cherished. Davis speculates about Esther's feeling for Mr. Marks, the Hasidic bachelor who works in a fabric store down on Orchard Street. It may well be "the beginning of something. But that's not as big as her feeling that 'I'm going to be stronger now—I'm not going to spend my time pining over what I don't have. I'll concentrate on what I do have, and feel grateful for it.'"

Esther has come to recognize her own goodness and decency. That discovery can take a lifetime. "It's a seed; it's growing; it's beginning to sprout. That's a powerful thing. I know women who never realize that. So in that sense, the play is a little…important."

Pamela Renner, a regular contributor to American Theatre, has written for the New York Times and Variety.