©2009-2024 Amy Brenneman
September 27, 2015
Like the whole world, I cheered for Viola Davis last Sunday. Her historic win, her blinding honesty, her grounded beauty. It was one of those moments where we all thought together: this is good. This is a good moment in history and a good woman to make it.
I did a play with Viola Davis at Lincoln Center back at the tail end of the 20th century. It was a gorgeous new play that transported all who worked on it: John Benjamin Hickey, Viola Davis, Julie Kavner and my now Leftovers cast mate Kevin Carroll, among others. Viola and Julie played a couple, as did Hickey and me. What I remember most about Vi from that time (and is still true now) is her laugh. Out of the low dignity of her speaking voice would erupt, like a hysterical butterfly, a trill of silliness that broke over her face and lit up the room. Julie Kavner caused this eruption many, many times during rehearsals and it was not unusual for Vi to stifle a giggle during an actual performance — yes, these were early days for Annalisa Keating.
While rehearsals were bliss, performances were hell because – how do I delicately say this? – the audiences HATED IT. They never connected to it. The elliptical story wasn’t clear. John Simon’s review called it “a swamp of a play.” Every performance at least half of the audience left. Those of us in the cast clung to one another like pieces of driftwood in stormy seas. It is one thing to be in a loathed movie or TV show, where you, the artist, are not actually in the same room as the loathers. A play that has a six-month run, with terrible reviews at the onset, is a special kind of hell. The light dims and we on stage all but hear the inner monologue of the audience: “Oh God, this is the terrible play.” “Why are we here?” “We have subscription tickets, honey, we couldn’t get out of it, much as I wish we could.” “Shh, shhh, maybe the New York Times was wrong. Maybe this will be good …..”
“Oh. I guess the New York Times was right.”
We on stage never stopped loving this play, never stopped telling the story to a new grouchy audience, and certainly our love for one another deepened because of the circumstances. We were war buddies from Omaha Beach; we bonded for life. Whenever I’d see John Hickey or Julie or Viola over the years, our hugs were very specific: “Hi you. I remember how you held me up during a challenging time. You are looking good, my friend, very good.”
My awesomely loyal mom saw this play, oh, 12 times or so. She brought my brothers, co-workers, friends and the entire population of our congregational church. “I think I get it more now, honey,” she’d murmur, clearly utterly perplexed. “I think I need to see it just a few more times.”
Backstage, Mom and Dad met my co-workers and she remembers Vi with a great deal of affection. So last Monday morning, as we quarterbacked the Emmys, we remembered and cheered for Viola.
And then Mom said this:
“I never can recognize her. She looks so glamorous, sometimes, with long and silky hair, but then sometimes she looks different – like last night.”
“Well mom,” I answer, “That’s Vi’s real hair, I think. When you see her with long silky hair, that’s a wig.”
“Huh,” she says. I can literally hear her brain from 3,000 miles away. “But why would she want her hair to look like that?”
“Well mom,” (teaching moment, Ame), “I think she wants to celebrate how her own hair looks as well. Because her hair is actually curly, and dark, and it’s nice not to wear a wig sometimes. After all, “I pause,” that’s kind of what her speech was about, don’t you think?”
My mother and I both have curly, dark hair. When I was younger she referred to it as “kinky” and wished that I had long, silky hair like my non-Jewish friends. “That’s the good hair,” she’d say, a sentiment echoed in African-American communities everywhere. We half-Jewish girls are no different. I’d never seen my hair straight until I was 30 and then it was a shock. I’ve smoothed my hair many times over the last couple of decades, but I’m finding my way back to my curls, just like Viola is. A homecoming to what nature intended.
It’s been a long time since our troubled Lincoln Center play, but clearly Viola is still influencing me, her power and giggles in equal measure. May it always be so.