A black actress breaks a television barrier

Updated: 2013-05-13 13:33

By Felicia R. Lee (The New York Times)

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A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of George Washington University in Washington, she knows the stakes: "I wanted 'Scandal' to be a success because I wanted networks and studios to believe that people of color and that women can be the driving force - both separately and when you happen to have both. I feel proud that we live in a world where 'Scandal' can succeed. It wasn't up to me. The variable was the audience: Was the audience going to be ready?"

"We're putting a lot of our hopes on Kerry's shoulders," said Yaba Blay, an assistant professor of Africana Studies at Drexel University in Philadelphia, who live-tweets about the show with other female academics. "The conversations about her go beyond the role, to the idea of representing us well as middle-class and upper middle-class, educated women" mostly because of the scarcity of such images of black women.

Ms. Washington credited Shonda Rhimes, the creator of "Scandal," as having the vision and - thanks to her previous hits "Grey's Anatomy" and "Private Practice" - the standing to break actors of color out of stereotype.

But Warrington Hudlin, the co-founder and president of the Black Filmmaker Foundation, considers unrealistic the suggestion that black actors can evade the burden of representation.

"I don't think anybody can ever escape that," he said, adding that Ms. Washington "represents the intersection of talent and opportunity."

She does not read reviews but does go to church, and declares "I don't talk about my personal life." Her closest friends are from her years growing up an only child in the Bronx section of New York.

Arriving at Spence, an elite, predominantly white, all-girls school on Manhattan's Upper East Side in seventh grade, Ms. Washington said, she developed a keen awareness of how choices in clothes, music and even how one walks contribute to identity. "It really opened up my world, intellectually, culturally," she said.

Ms. Washington points with pride to her choices in her variety of movie and Broadway roles. "I see how all this is important, and yet I have never shied away from taking on controversial issues or controversial roles."

For "Django Unchained," she insisted on being whipped instead of using a stunt-double. "I don't like to fake my way through stuff," she said.

Ms. Washington seems happy to be fulfilling an old dream. At Spence, she recalled, after finishing Ophelia's mad scene during a student production of "Hamlet," catching a glimpse of her mother weeping in the audience.

"I thought, 'Wow,'" Ms. Washington said, adding, "For a moment something about this world allowed her to suspend her disbelief and believe I was some other person in some other time.

"I thought, 'This is powerful.'"

The New York Times

A black actress breaks a television barrier
A black actress breaks a television barrier

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