A perfectly shaded performance is like a fine piece of fabric; one can savor the intricate details, but the seams should never show. Perhaps that's one reason the role of a skilled seamstress is an ideal fit for the widely acclaimed Viola Davis. As she re-creates her Obie and Drama Desk–winning characterization of Esther from New York's Roundabout Theatre Company presentation of Intimate Apparel, currently restaged at the Mark Taper Forum, local audiences have a chance to see what all the buzz is about.
Davis is hardly a new face on the scene. She has been racking up impressive credits on stage, screen, and television for several years, but her indelible work in this marvelous Lynn Nottage play has the whiff of a genuine career breakthrough. In a role Nottage based on vague memories of her own grandmother, Davis creates an alternately heartbreaking and humorous portrait of a woman with a deceptively meek exterior and a surprising capacity for resilience of spirit. It's the kind of role to which only an extraordinary actor can do justice, and Davis lights up the stage with her intelligent and sensitive depiction of the character's wide range of emotional truths.
"The biggest challenge I faced was that Esther is not at all cerebral," says Davis. "She is totally and completely basic in her feelings. She's completely honest and childlike. That's her beauty." The story, set in 1905 Manhattan, revolves around the sought-after seamstress Esther, a 35-year-old African-American spinster who encounters various levels of society—from rich matrons to prostitutes—in her daily work of creating fashionable and sexy lingerie for her clients. Her shrinking-violet demeanor demonstrates that she feels suppressed by the box that society has placed her in, though Davis offers eloquent grace notes that elucidate the reservoirs of sweetness and purity of spirit that are Esther's inner strength. She yearns to fall in love, but she is as awkward in romantic situations as she is reticent in her general interactions with people. A disastrous marriage with a Panama Canal laborer who initially courted her via correspondence provides her character's strongest test.
Davis tackled her task of developing this character with a clear-cut methodology: "What I knew from the beginning—though in some ways this might sound like a no-brainer, something any actor should do—was that I had to completely leave myself behind and submerge myself in this character. I had to make sure there was not any sort of affectation to my portrayal. At the same time, Esther has to be interesting within her simplicity. That interest derives from her journey in the play as she discovers her self-worth. The audience gets a peek into the very private life of a character, something we don't always get in the theatre. Though the audience sees her beauty, she doesn't. She first has to go through this train wreck of an experience. In the end, she transcends her own limitations and those that society has placed upon her."
Davis continues, "I don't think Esther is [the type of] role that a lot of women of color get to play, because she is complicated; she's not just another strong black woman standing in the middle of the stage ranting and raving. She's childlike yet very womanly at times and very passionate. This play makes significant points about society without hitting you over the head with them. To make her real I had to let the character unfold naturally. People often feel that if you're not chewing up the scenery, you're not acting. Yet the old adage holds true: When you see an actor onstage with a cat, who does the audience watch more? The cat of course. Children and animals are always interesting to watch onstage, because they are just being who they are. That's what I needed to do with this character. I needed to stay out of Esther's way and let her be who she is." With layers of texture and a wealth of rich yet subtle nuances, that is exactly what Davis does in this glittering performance.
Davis' own journey began in St. Matthews, N.C. When she was an infant, her father, who worked on a racetrack, moved the family to Rhode Island. "I was very passionate about acting since I was about 14," Davis says. "I started in high school. We entered all the drama festivals with our one-act plays. We were very competitive and serious about it. I wanted to be very good, so I started taking acting lessons. I wasn't in it for the glory or the celebrity. I liked the work and wanted to perfect my craft." When she left home, she studied and worked in New York for many years. She was in Broadway and Off-Broadway productions and also became known as "the queen of regional theatre," she says. Her long list of high-caliber projects includes Joe Turner's Come and Gone, Hecuba, and Seven Guitars on the stage, films such as The Substance of Fire and Far From Heaven, and countless guest spots on television series. She moved to Los Angeles in 1999 to appear in the CBS series City of Angels, in which she first met actor Julius Tennon. They were married last year and now reside in Los Angeles. She also was among the stars of last year's CBS' futuristic legal drama, Century City.
Among the wealth of fine roles she has had the opportunity to accept, Davis says a particularly rewarding one was in Everybody's Ruby, which she did at New York's Public Theatre in 1998. "This was a complex role, with many layers to the character," says Davis. "It's based on the true story of Ruby McCollum, who was accused of killing a white man in 1958 in Florida. What was complicated was that she had a relationship with a prominent doctor. She fell in love with him, but he had raped her; their initial meeting was a rape. At the time, it was illegal for a black person to accuse a white person of a crime. So she turned the situation around to suit her needs. It ended up being a very complicated relationship. He injected her with morphine. She was repelled but really turned on and very much in love with him. Meanwhile she was a wife and a good mother. I loved the production and working with the director. It was a fabulous experience all the way around."
A Davis characterization that will likely have a stronger recognition factor for nationwide audiences is her brief but powerful turn in Denzel Washington's 2002 film Antwone Fisher for which she was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for Best Supporting Actress. She brilliantly played a woman who had lost her son to child services because she was an imprisoned crack addict. She doesn't see him until many years later, when he is a grown man in the Navy, and there is a devastating reunion scene. "I really loved working with Denzel," remarks Davis. "He challenged me greatly as an actor, and we had a chance to talk about the character at length, something you seldom get to do in films. He gave me a lot of freedom in crafting the performance, because he was so interested in getting to the heart of this woman."
Another highlight in Davis' string of triumphs was her Tony-winning performance in August Wilson's 2001 Broadway drama King Hedley II. She played the 35-year-old mother of a 17-year-old girl who had a baby and couldn't take care of it. "I had a huge monologue in the first act," says Davis. "It's about not wanting to bring a child into the world, knowing what kind of life the child would be headed for. My character was sort of a prototype, a poster child for so many black women in America who are young grandmothers who take care of their grandchildren because their own children can't do it."
Davis says her career surged upward after her Tony win, and she proudly admits that the award meant a lot to her: "Standing upon that stage at Radio City Music Hall with a Tony in your hand is really, really overwhelming. I'm always curious about people who try to downplay awards. What keeps me humble is that I always know I need to do the play that night. The fact is you can always give a bad performance. It's an occupational hazard. I can be happy about my career successes, but at the end of the day they don't change my personal life. My family was the only black one in the town where I grew up. We were raised in abject poverty and didn't have self-esteem. The only thing we had was our dreams. That's what drove me and my two sisters to move forward." Self-doubters who enjoy Davis' consistently impeccable work in all mediums can perhaps walk away with the encouragement that with hard work, talent, and commitment, cherished dreams can indeed come true.