On Sunday the American Theatre Wing's Tony Awards will air on CBS. Despite the recession, audiences continued to flock to theater, especially to see shows that featured Hollywood hot-list actors as Cate Blanchett, Scarlett Johansson, Liev Schreiber, Jude Law, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Denzel Washington. But this year it is the lesser-known Viola Davis, nominated for best lead actress for her role in Fences, who was the standout performance of the year.
Many filmgoers first noticed Davis in 2008, when she was nominated for an Oscar for her brief role in Doubt, when she effectively stole the scene from Meryl Streep. In the movie, Davis played Mrs. Miller, a mother who shockingly announces that she will keep her son in school—despite the fact that the head mistress (Streep) is dropping some very strong hints that the head priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman) has been molesting the boy.
That one heart-wrenching scene garnered much attention for Davis, who, until then, had been toiling in relative movie obscurity. The Chicago Sun-Times veteran film critic Roger Ebert heaped praise on her brief scene, declaring that it ''was good as any I've seen this year. It lasts about 10 minutes, but it is the emotional heart and soul of Doubt, and if Viola Davis isn't nominated by the Academy, an injustice will have been done.'' Davis, who previously appeared in Antwone Fisher, Nights in Rodanthe and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, didn't win the Oscar. But Hollywood had—finally—taken notice.
For theatergoers, particularly August Wilson fans, Davis is a more familiar face. In 2001, she won the Tony Award for best performance for a featured actress for her role in Wilson's King Hedley II. However, much like her bravura turn in Doubt, Davis' performance in the Broadway revival of Wilson's Fences, was a coup de theatre. Her dignified, breathtaking and thoughtful performance not only upstages the lead character, Troy Maxson, brilliantly played by Denzel Washington, but also dismantles old stereotypes about bad black mothers and the new caricatures of single black women as well.
Wilson's 10-play Pittsburgh cycle, which chronicles the African-American experience throughout the 20th century, is often criticized for depicting black female characters who play a secondary role to his male characters. In the case of Fences, Rose has suppressed most of her dreams in order to help her husband, Troy, cope with his failed ones. In the hands of a less capable actress, Rose could be seen as just another Wilson woman, a moral centerpiece but marginalized character.
But with her performance, Davis managed to move Rose from the sidelines to center stage. Her performance is not only well-worth the price of the ticket; the Tony Awards Nominating Committee apparently thought so, too, nominating her for lead actress for a role that traditionally is considered a supporting role. When Davis first takes to the stage, in vintage dress and apron, bursting with joy and deep laughter, you think that all is well in the world. As Rose, an industrious, big-hearted, but reticent 1950s housewife, Davis moves around the bigger than life actor, Washington, and his ''too big'' character with effortless ease.
To see them together—particularly during the scene when Troy confesses his infidelity to Rose—is to recognize just how little time Washington shares with other women in his movies. It says something about the absence of African-American lead actresses in American film that he hasn't been this well-matched with an actress since Angela Bassett in Spike Lee's masterpiece Malcolm X. (Recently, Washington's leading ladies have been in the films he has directed, Jurnee Smollett in the Great Debaters and Joy Bryant in Antwone Fisher.)
Viola Davis doesn't just transform the gender politics of the play because she can go tete-a-tete with Denzel Washington, as she did with Meryl Streep in Doubt. Her performance has to be read within this larger gender context of our culture. When she tells the adulterous Troy that he is now a ''womanless man,'' she resists the inequity of her marriage and becomes a redeeming symbol of a single black motherhood. (Audience members literally gasp during this scene, too.) Through her riveting performance, we see new possibilities in the play. We now can see that part of Troy's tragedy comes from the fact that he, like Rose, believed that patriarchy, a sort of hyper-active black masculinity, was the only solution to the race problem of the 1950s.
There are many different ways to interpret Rose's final act of self-sacrifice in the play. Some see it as a return to a retrogressive gender role; while others, like director Lorna Littleway, director of August Wilson's Women at the Nuyorican this past March, posit Rose as a feminist icon. It is true that Rose ultimately accepts ''what life offers her as a woman'' and ends up raising Troy's daughter, spending all her time in church and remaining financially dependent on Troy. In the end, she risks being limited by both her social circumstances on one hand and Wilson's gender blind spots on the other. But, for a brief night at the theater, Viola Davis' theatrical genius determines that Rose does and will have more.
Salamishah Tillet is a rape survivor and co-founder of A Long Walk Home, a nonprofit that uses art to end violence against girls and women. She is also an associate professor of English studies at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of Sites of Slavery: Citizenship, Racial Democracy, and the Post-Civil Rights Imagination. She is working on a book about civil rights icon Nina Simone.