‘Iguess you could say I’ve come full circle,” says Viola Davis, as she considers her extended August Wilson résumé. Her very first professional acting gig, back home in Rhode Island, was in Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. “I played Mattie,” she says. “It’s what got me my Actor’s Equity card.” Several years later, her Broadway debut was in Wilson’s Seven Guitars. She got her Tony for her role in Wilson’s King Hedley II, in 2001. And now her return to Broadway comes in the revival of yet another Wilson play, Fences, in which she stars opposite Denzel Washington.
We’re backstage at the Cort Theatre, and the makeup and hairdo that just an instant ago transformed her into a fifties Pittsburgh housewife are gone. Davis is winding down for her first day off in two weeks, owing to the rigorous schedule of Fences, in which she plays Rose Maxson, the complex wife of Washington’s ex-con turned Negro Leaguer turned garbageman. It’s a powerful-yet-vulnerable part, not unlike Davis’s character in the film version of Doubt, Mrs. Miller—a role built around one long and pivotal speech, and which got her an Oscar nomination. (She’ll be back onscreen this summer in the recently wrapped Eat Pray Love.) What she loves about Wilson’s work is that “it’s not ‘drive-by’ writing, where the black character becomes a device to illuminate the white character. You have to play the device, which, as a black woman, is usually strong, say, or all-seeing, all-knowing, Buddha, whatever. Every time I read one of those scripts, I think of The Merchant Of Venice: ‘If you cut me, do I not bleed?’ ”
Davis’s reputation as a Wilson specialist meant she didn’t have to stump for the part. “I’ve gotta think up a good story for that,” she says with a chuckle, when I ask her how Fences came about. “You know, like maybe Scott Rudin [who produced Doubt as well as Fences] and I ran into each other on the street or something? Basically, Scott called and asked if I’d like to return to Broadway. Of course, I did, to work my chops again.” She pauses, then adds: “What I need is a couple more fans like Scott. Isn’t that what we all want?”