Providence Journal: Women of color in the arts say Viola Davis' Emmy a 'powerful reminder more needs to be done'

In her acceptance speech, Davis, who grew up in Central Falls, said 'the only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity'

By Alisha A. Pina, Journal Staff Writer

From hope to pride to sadness that it took too long, the historic win and acceptance speech by Viola Davis at Sunday's 67th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards also awakened ugly memories of an industry that once didn't accept black actresses.

"'In my mind I see a line and over that line I see green fields and lovely flowers and beautiful white women with their arms stretched out to me over that line,'" Davis, who grew up in Central Falls, said. "'But I can’t seem to get there no how. I can’t seem to get over that line.'"

"That was Harriet Tubman in the 1800s," she continued.

"And let me tell you something, the only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there."

Among the several women of color in the arts asked to react to Davis' win and speech, Rose Weaver choked up Monday in reflection of her own arduous, but successful career that started professionally in the early 1970s. Weaver was a fellow at Trinity Rep Company with Davis. The kindred two, she said, were dark skinned ladies trying to make it.

"It used to be that you couldn't even be kissed [on television]," said Weaver, 66, who wore wigs in high school because "nappy headed, short Afro women" weren't accepted. "I had to work so incredibly hard to put food on the table because there was not enough work in any of those genres. Black women were at the bottom of the totem pole. That hurts. It hurts like hell."

Weaver said it is "pretty pathetic" that Davis is the first to win outstanding lead actress in a television drama series. She plays Annalise Keating, a brilliant defense attorney and law professor, in "How to Get Away with Murder."
Adds Weaver, "But it's a step forward."

Sylvia Ann Soares, who also began in the 1970s and says she was denied roles because she wouldn't straighten her hair, said, "It's about time. She damn sure deserved it." She characterized the speech as "genuine" and "diplomatic."

"It was a statement for all the black actresses, and a powerful reminder that more needs to be done," said Soares, who continues to work locally and previously appeared on television while working in California. "[Writers] need to recognize talent."

National storyteller Valerie Tutson said she went into storytelling in 1991, even though she has a degree in theater, because the roles were limited and weren't going to allow her to be her "full self."

"I didn’t have any interest in playing a 'ho,'" she said. Davis, she said, was "right on" with her statement.

Jackie Davis, co-founder of New Urban Theatre Lab and not related to Viola Davis, said, "It’s a sad thing that we are celebrating this 67 years later. And I was not going to watch the Emmys because the stage is usually awash with white actors."

In the business since the 1990s, she continued, "I’m ecstatic for Viola, for Central Falls, for Rhode Island, and for hopefully the future of our craft. It had better only go up from here."

Just three years into the industry, Trinity Rep resident Mia Ellis, 29, says Davis' win gives her hope."It's such a huge deal," said Ellia, who splits her time between New York and Providence. "There are no words for what I felt for her when she was speaking. It gives me hope. I hope to make those steady leaps and bounds as well."

Central Falls pride

Joining Central Fall Mayor James Diossa with congratulations was Angelo Garcia, founder and director of the Segue Institute for Learning in Central Falls. Davis, a longtime Segue supporter, helped raise money for the school at a 2012 fundraiser. There is a picture of Davis at the school, and a banner which quotes Davis: "Dream big, and dream fierce."

"Viola believes it is part of her work to call attention to the things she believes in," he said. "When given the opportunity to reach a mass audience, she'll take advantage of that to shout her message from the rooftops."

Deloris Grant, Viola Davis' sister, teaches English and drama at Central Falls High School. She said the Emmy and speech had a big impact on her students.

"The words resonate. It always resonates. These kids feel a special connection with Viola. They feel that they can cross that line, like she did," Grant said. "They all watched it. They all talked about it."

She added, "I saw her so happy when they said her name," she said. "Sixty-seven years, and they never had an actress of color win as lead actress in a drama? And this is in the United States?"


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