“The childhood that we came from,” she continues, “I hate to go back to the poverty thing, but when you don’t have things, your dream is so much bigger and so much more important. To dream makes you great. I think that’s also part of what makes her a great actress.”
These days, Davis is focused on more than just acting. Frustrated with the paucity of big, meaty roles for black actors, she’s already optioned two books to become films: a biopic about civil rights leader and Texas congresswoman Barbara Jordan, and Ann Weisgarber’s The Personal History of Rachel DuPree, which tells the story of challenges faced by an African-American pioneer in South Dakota (to be played by Davis) and her rancher husband.
“I want to have more expansive storylines for people of color,” Davis explains. “I just feel like our lives are not shown in a way that is human and deep and complicated. A lot of times we’re just fill. Even when we’re not meant to be, we end up eventually being that. I always say we’re like the Greek chorus.”
On Broadway, too, Davis points out that years like the last one, which featured a range of dynamic roles for black actors, are often followed by a few years “of nothing.” As long as that cycle continues, it exacerbates the problem.
“When you’re not given the opportunity to work and to shine, it’s like having a great body and going to a $10-or-less store to buy your clothes — it’s never going to emphasize what you really look like,” she says. “Your gifts can atrophy if you’re not given the opportunity to use them.”
Stepping into the role of producer is one way Davis is proactively trying to change things. Supporting education is another, whether she’s visiting schools, donating to Central Falls’ Adams Memorial Library or sending award-ceremony gowns to her sister’s class.
Evidence that she’s making a difference is mounting, too, and not just with films like Rachel DuPree’s story. After Davis’ Oscar nomination for Doubt, her sister says that a Central Falls student took her aside and said, “Mrs. Grant, I feel so happy.”“Why?” Grant asked.
“Because of your sister,” said the girl. “She makes me feel like I’m going to be someone one day.”
Jennifer Odell is a freelance writer based in New Orleans, a city that inspires her each day to dream big and dream fierce.