What you need to know:
- Hollywood actress Viola Davis is the only black person to have won the Triple Crown of Acting: A Tony Award, an Emmy Award and an Academy Award.
- On February 5, 2023, she won a Grammy for best narration and storytelling recording for her memoir's audio book, joining yet another elite entertainment group called Egot, for Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony winners.
Hollywood actress Viola Davis is the only black person to have won the Triple Crown of Acting: A Tony Award, an Emmy Award and an Academy Award.
On February 5, 2023, she won a Grammy for best narration and storytelling recording for her memoir's audio book, joining yet another elite entertainment group called Egot, for Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony winners.
Two weeks before her graduation from The Juilliard School, a private performing arts conservatoire in New York City, in 1993, Viola woke up sick. She knew she was pregnant by her boyfriend of seven years. Early the following morning, she visited a clinic near Juilliard to terminate the pregnancy.
After the excruciating procedure, a bleeding Viola was aided into a recovery room; it had dozens of folding chairs arranged in a circle and huge sanitary pads were spread on each chair to absorb blood. There was a woman on each.
All around her, women were vomiting in bowls and screaming or moaning in distress. Viola cried through the irritability, puked and kept crying. She went home despondent and bled for two weeks, before falling into life-altering depression.
In her memoir, Finding Me, she cites the odds she confronted, having begun living on her own when she was only 17. She emphasises the enormous progress she made in the racist, sexist and colourist industry of performing arts.
She had the fortitude to flourish and make a life better than the impoverished adversities in which her single mother had raised her.
Viola graduated from Juilliard aged 28, transitioning from a penniless student to a penurious graduate with a student loan debt of $50,000. Finding work became exceedingly gruelling.
She auditioned for theatre, film and TV roles and required space to prepare. She spent years rehearsing on buses and subway trains. In her first year in search of work, everything was astonishingly debilitating.
Her monthly rent in Providence on Rhodes Island, New York, was $250 and it was challenging to raise. She ate chicken wings, which cost $1.20, and white rice that cost 60 cents at Chinese restaurants.
She received extra protein from dried, salty, smoked herring fish, which she would buy from Spanish markets at $3. She only ate when she could afford it.
The acting profession, at any given time, has a 95 per cent unemployment rate. Only one per cent of actors make $50,000 a year or more, and only 0.04 per cent of actors are famous—the stories covered in the media.
Viola was met with a rude awakening of bigotry during her auditions—the power and potency of colourism. Almost all roles she auditioned for were for drug-addicted characters.
She auditioned for a few roles that were low-budget for black women, but all of them were described as “light-skinned”.
The others were soap operas; she would sit in the audition waiting room with hundreds of light-skinned models. It became apparent to her that lighter skin was more accepted in the entertainment industry.
There were awesome shows on TV that displayed the cute black girl who had autonomy and material wealth, but none of those described in the scripts looked like her.
An agent told her that the word all the colourist casting directors used when on the phone while asking for light-skinned actors was ‘interchangeable’. That meant if you were a little darker, you had to possess whiter features of a small nose, thin lips and tiny rear, feeding into the derogatory subconscious stereotype that light-skinned women are more feminine, classy and acceptable.
Worse still, the stigma was not only perpetuated by white executives but also substantiated by black artists and movie producers. Blacks had adopted the racially dehumanising custom and were applying it against fellow blacks.
“Culturally speaking, many believe it and they have adopted the belief that if you are dark, you’re uglier, harder, increasingly masculine and excessively maternal than your lighter-skinned counterparts," Viola writes.
"It’s the paper bag test mentality."
Meantime, Viola worked as a waiter in restaurants while awaiting an acting role. This was before streaming services. Studios weren’t churning out great roles for black actors of her shade.
She would prepare for theatrical roles for black actresses that were described as pretty or attractive. She applied her makeup, ensured her hair was done but would not get those roles, even if the producers were black, notwithstanding her exceptional acting talent.
Viola's big break came when she auditioned for August Wilson’s travelling play Seven Guitars, where she proudly embellished her melanin. She contested and substantially altered conceptions of feminine beauty.
In 1999, she won an Obie Award for Everybody's Ruby, a play based on the famous novel, springing her career to success.
Jeff Anthony is a novelist, a Big Brother Africa 2 Kenyan representative and founder of Jeff's Fitness Centre @jeffbigbrother