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She's plainly talented

In 'Intimate Apparel,' Viola Davis' character harvests her strength, much as the actress did.

August 01, 2004|Barbara Isenberg | Special to The Times

When actress Viola Davis was first approached about starring in Lynn Nottage's new play, "Intimate Apparel," the timing was all wrong. Film and television commitments had temporarily nudged theater off the dance card for Davis, who'd won a 2001 Tony Award for her work in August Wilson's "King Hedley II."

But Davis got another chance. "Intimate Apparel," Nottage's homage to a great-grandmother who worked as a seamstress creating ladies' undergarments, premiered in 2003 at Baltimore's Center Stage and South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa. When Daniel Sullivan was hired to direct a production at New York's Roundabout Theatre this year and sought her out, the timing was right.

"I'd been doing television for such a long time," Davis says, during rehearsals for a reprise of the Roundabout production, which opens Thursday at the Mark Taper Forum. "You have a great director who directs very specifically, you have a great script and my great need and desire for artistic fulfillment."

Davis inhabits the character of Esther Mills, a plain, 35-year-old spinster in 1905 New York. Working day after day, year after year, at a sewing machine in her rooming house, Esther turns out colorful corsets for Fifth Avenue matrons and downtown prostitutes. She watches sadly as 22 other boarders are married off before launching a correspondence with a Panama Canal laborer who will eventually become her husband.

"Esther is ordinary-looking, but she's quite extraordinary in terms of her soul," Davis says. "She is a woman who knows how to see beyond what someone appears to be and see into their heart."

Davis certainly did. "Esther is a fully realized human being, and as an actress of color, I don't get to play fully realized human beings a lot," explains the 38-year-old actress. "I get to play archetypes. I get to be a mouthpiece for a political or social issue. Esther is strong and vulnerable, funny and touching, childlike yet mature. A person was in the writer's mind when she conceived the character, not an idea."

Attractive women like Davis don't get to play plain women like Esther Mills often either. Leaning across a conference table before rehearsals, her long earrings swaying, Davis too is a study in contradictions, a successful actress who has not lost touch with her humble beginnings.

Then, in a rehearsal room just a few minutes later, the earrings are gone, and the confident actress has transformed into someone shy, awkward -- and somehow homely. Wedding and bedding George Armstrong, played by Russell Hornsby, she becomes a woman folded within herself. Her body language and voice are subservient, her eyes downcast, her hands clutching her garment bag against her chest as protection. And then, slowly but steadily, she harvests her own strength.

"Viola has tapped into the humanity of Esther Mills," Hornsby remarks. "She has found the spirit of that woman and the women of that time. She's carrying the souls of black folks with her every time she graces that stage. The spirits of our ancestors who got short shrift in life and who haven't been able to fulfill all of their dreams."

The stage as saving grace

Dreams surely fueled Davis' life. Born in St. Matthews, S.C., the fifth of six children, she was an infant when her family moved to Central Falls, R.I. Her father worked grooming horses at racetracks.

Hers was the working-class community's only black family and, she says, "My most tragic memories are of kids not wanting to drink from the water fountain after me and of being chased by a dozen boys with bricks and long sticks. For many years, we lived in a condemned building with rats, where the plumbing didn't work and plaster was coming out of the walls.

"My theory is that in order to overcome an environment like that and to realize your self-worth, you can't be ordinary. You can't kind of want to do something. You've got to really want to do it. You can't kind of believe in yourself. You have to really believe in yourself."

Acting soon became her way out. Participating in an Upward Bound college prep program when she was 14, the fledgling actress returned home "hungrier than ever. I had decided that's what I wanted to do with my life."

She enrolled at the Young People's School for the Performing Arts in Seekonk, Mass., a commitment of 2.5 hours and three bus rides each morning and night, before heading to Rhode Island College. She left with a degree in theater, then used student loans and scholarship money to enroll in New York's Juilliard School. After leaving Juilliard in '93, she says, "I was regional theater queen."

By December 1994, she'd been cast in Wilson's "Seven Guitars." The play went to four cities -- including Los Angeles, at the Ahmanson Theatre -- before Broadway. That was, she says, "my big break." She received a Tony nomination and several other awards and, she says, "felt like I was really on my way. It was everything I had dreamed of."

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