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A double life as actress, playwright

THEATER

Pulitzer finalist and Obie Award-winning performer Eisa Davis stars in 'This' at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.

August 14, 2011|Jasmine Elist

"I'm in a play called 'This.' "

"OK, what is it called?"

"No, no, it's called 'This.' "

"Yes? What? It's called what?"

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, August 17, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 2 inches; 85 words Type of Material: Correction
Eisa Davis: An article in the Aug. 14 Arts & Books section about actress-playwright Eisa Davis said that she would play a singing lawyer in the musical comedy "Smash"; she plays a lawyer who doesn't sing. The article also referred to a New York venue as Playwrights Horizon; it is Playwrights Horizons. Additionally, Davis was quoted as saying, "I found the things I was most afraid of and ran straight toward them." The article should have made clear that she was quoting author James Baldwin.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, August 21, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 52 words Type of Material: Correction
Eisa Davis: An article in the Aug. 14 Arts & Books section about actress-playwright Eisa Davis said her mother Fania worked as a civil rights lawyer ensuring such things as wheelchair-accessible bathrooms and public recycling bins. In fact, her work focused on the movements for racial and women's equality, anti-apartheid and peace.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, August 28, 2011 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part D Page 3 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Eisa Davis: An Aug. 14 article about actress-playwright Eisa Davis said her mother, Fania, worked as a civil rights lawyer ensuring such things as wheelchair-accessible bathrooms and public recycling bins. Actually, her work focused on the movements for racial and women's equality, anti-apartheid and peace.

With a lighthearted laugh, Eisa Davis says she often encounters this response when revealing that she is in a new production of "This," which recently opened at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. The perplexity may be fitting for the universe playwright Melissa James Gibson has created: a world of confusion in which close friends enter a vulnerable time of unforeseen circumstances testing their expectations -- a time also known as middle age.

Davis' work as an actor and a playwright has contributed to a textured career. She was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in drama in 2007 for her play "Bulrusher," about a biracial orphan infant found in a basket and raised by a quiet schoolteacher. She went on to write and star in the autobiographical "Angela's Mixtape," which was among the New Yorker's best plays of 2009. Other plays she has written include "Ramp," as well as "The History of Light," which is returning to the stage this fall in New Jersey.

A common theme in her work is an exploration of communication and language.

As an actor, Davis' work includes her Obie Award-winning performance in the rock musical "Passing Strange," which opened at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 2006 and moved to Broadway in 2008 (and was made into a film directed by Spike Lee). She has appeared in such films as "Welcome to the Rileys," "Robot Stories" and "Happenstance," as well as in the TV series "The Wire," "Law & Order," "Damages" and "Mercy."

Davis, who plays Marrell, a 38-year-old mom in a strained marriage whose baby is incapable of sleeping for more than 15 minutes at a time, is no stranger to the ingenious and witty "This," having performed in the 2009 New York production.

"Eisa is the only actor who has been with the play in its every incarnation," says director Daniel Aukin, who is directing the play for his second time. "She has been there from the first reading to opening night. From the very first reading, it quickly became evident that she understood this character in a deep and surprising way. She completely owned it; it was completely her own."

Davis, 40, has taken on characters very different from herself -- and particularly those who defy social and racial stereotypes. When she played the role of the fragile and selfish mother in "Passing Strange," what appealed to her was playing a character who was a departure from the all-knowing black mother stereotype. Similarly, in "This," Davis explains how starkly different she and her character are: Marrell has no problem correcting people or telling people what to do and is a mom who has been in a relationship for 18 years.

"It's about imagination -- it's about not having some tiny prison cell that holds the only representation of us, whether you're, for example, black, female or able-bodied," Davis says at a coffee shop near the Douglas. "If stereotypes in some way are going to restrict your imagination of who it is you feel you can be, then that hurts all of us on so many levels."

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Famous pedigree

A Bay Area native, Davis looked up to two strong-willed and influential women in her family: a mother who is a civil rights lawyer and an aunt who is a famous political activist. The work of Davis' mother Fania revolved around social justice -- ensuring such things as wheelchair-accessible bathrooms and public recycling bins. Her aunt, Angela Davis, is the one-time imprisoned Black Panther, civil rights leader, author and scholar.

Davis says that growing up under the same roof as a strong-minded, proactive mother and near an equally strong-minded and determined aunt made her "scared to be an artist but it also made it essential" that she become one."

As a child, Davis' schedule was filled with large doses of piano, dance and voice lessons; beyond mere enjoyment, Davis says she hoped these activities would win her attention and recognition in the eyes of her family. Davis went on to receive an MFA in acting and playwriting from the Actors Studio in New York, where she is currently a member. She lives in Brooklyn.

When Davis took her craft out of the classroom, what she quickly confronted was her fear. Fear of living an artist's life on the fringes, fear of whether her family would find value in her work, fear of whether she would be able to stand by her beliefs as an artist and fear of coming to terms with her legacy. "I found the things I was most afraid of and ran straight toward them," she says.

It was as a result of this head-on approach that Davis wrote the musical memoir "Angela's Mixtape." To confront her fears and gain a deeper perspective on her family, Davis not only wrote the script about her family but also performed in the play as herself and did it in front of her family. Although she became politically conscious because of her upbringing, which she says she appreciates, she found it difficult to find a sense of self among the shouting of radical slogans.

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