Just as Fences hit the stage before the screen, so, too, did its Oscar-winning star, Viola Davis.
A graduate of the Juilliard School in 1993, Davis made her Broadway debut in August Wilson’s Seven Guitars in 1996, earning Drama Desk and Tony Award nominations and a Theatre World Award. The actor then performed Off-Broadway in God’s Heart and Pericles before winning a 1999 Obie Award (and a Drama Desk nomination) for her performance as Ruby McCollum in Everybody’s Ruby at the Public Theater, starring Phylicia Rashad and directed by Kenny Leon.
Though Hollywood began to take notice, casting Davis in television’s City of Angels as Nurse Peeler and small roles in films like Far From Heaven and Antwone Fisher, Davis thrived in the theatre. Proving herself to be a powerhouse, she won the Drama Desk and Tony Awards for Featured Actress in a Play for 2001’s King Hedley II—another Wilson work. The play marked Davis’ second Broadway outing.
She appeared in the original Off-Broadway production of Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel in 2004 at Roundabout Theatre Company and won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Actress in a Play.
For the next six years, Davis continued to ramp up her presence on television, playing expanded guest roles on long-running series like Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and smaller series like Century City, Traveler, and The United States of Tara.
In 2010, Broadway came calling with another August Wilson play: Fences. Starring opposite Denzel Washington, the drama was a critically acclaimed hit and a boon for awards. Davis took home both the Drama Desk and Tony Awards for her portrayal of Rose Maxson. Washington took home the Tony for Best Actor in a Play—making them the 19th pair of Lead Actor and Lead Actress in Tony history to take home the trophies together. (No other onstage couple has achieved this since.) The play also took home the Drama Desk for Outstanding Revival of a Play and the Tony for Best Revival of a Play. Of course, this wouldn’t be the last time Davis earned recognition for Fences.
Just this past winter, Davis won her first Academy Award for her big-screen reprisal of Rose in the film version of Fences, directed by co-star Washington. The film was also nominated for Best Motion Picture of the Year. Critics and audiences hailed Davis for her raw, emotional portrayal of a woman who tethered her life to that of her husband, Troy, who she learns has been unfaithful.
But before her Oscar-winning glory, Davis churned out groundbreaking work regularly. In 2008, she created major buzz for her supporting role as the mother of a child who’d been abused by a priest in the Catholic church in the film adaptation of John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Doubt. She earned Golden Globe, SAG, and Oscar nominations for her work. In 2011, she earned Golden Globe and Oscar nominations for her role as housemaid Aibeleen in The Help. She won a SAG Award as part of the Outstanding Cast of the movie.
In 2014, Davis debuted as the lead of Shonda Rhimes’ How to Get Away With Murder. Her performance as the complicated law professor, Annalise Keating, earned Davis her first Primetime Emmy win in 2015—and the first Primetime Emmy for a black woman in that category—plus two more nominations in 2016 and now in 2017.
Davis was named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2017.
She continues to produce stellar work as she breaks barriers for women and people of color in acting. But remember, theatre had her first.
Tune in to the 69th Annual Emmy Awards September 17 on CBS.