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Photograph: Joan Marcus

Elizabeth A. Davis on ’1776,’ changing the Broadway industry and more

Plus: what she thinks about *that* infamous interview.

Anna Rahmanan
Written by
Anna Rahmanan

Elizabeth A. Davis takes a relatively long time to answer any sort of question thrown at her over the phone.

Although at first, the trait seems to be at odds with her career as a Broadway actress, her reflectiveness makes total sense. It’s that quietude and spirit of contemplation that have rendered her the ideal candidate to play Founding Father Thomas Jefferson in the most recent version of 1776 on Broadway, a production featuring a cast comprised entirely of people who identify as female, trans and non-binary.

The effect of that specific casting choice on a musical that analyzes the events leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence is not lost on the Tony-nominated Davis, but there’s yet another reason why she catches the eye while on stage: the star, who previously starred in Once, is currently eight months pregnant.

“I’m finding the community, the purpose and the distraction involved in doing a consistent show to be really good for me mentally,” says the actress. “I love my work so much that I’m going to keep doing it as long as my body says ‘yes.’”

Photograph: Joan Marcus

Just a few months before 1776's run is scheduled to end, Davis opens up about the shifting landscape on Broadway, what should change within the industry, how the impact of 1776 is of particular importance in 2022 and, of course, her feelings about her co-star Sara Porkalob's infamous interview.

On the difference between performing for audiences pre- and post-COVID-19

"It feels like a brand new world. It feels like there is BC, before COVID, and AC, after COVID. Now, there is a gentleness and a sense that we are all finding our way together in the room—both audiences and performers. Within that, there's also an extension of grace to each other, which I find helpful and needed in this moment. It feels like we're all in the middle of an overcoming together."

On the importance of working on a show like 1776 in today's political climate

“I get chills every night doing the show. The feeling has not gone away. The words that we are saying every night have new resonance. As an actor, I find it extraordinary to be portraying a fixed moment in time while simultaneously living in the current resonance and relevance of what it means right now. I find it thrilling. It feels like we’re right on the nerve and that this is the job of theater. I always say that the job of theater is to hold up a mirror to folks and let them see something that then they will choose to go and do whatever they want with it. It is a real privilege to simply be a stand-in as that mirror holder.”

Photograph: Joan Marcus

On how the show's casting affects her performance

“I feel such strength standing on that stage in the midst of what is often viewed as a very frail state. I do not feel anything but powerful in the midst of an eight-month pregnant body because the way that the show has been cast is handing us power and handing us agency and offering everyone a reminder that we all, every American, has the capacity to be a part of the active pursuit of democracy. 

I also feel this triangulation of the historical Jefferson and historical Martha Jefferson, who died because of childbirth complications, and the historical Sally Hemings, who was Jefferson’s enslaved woman whom he had children with after Martha died. All of the women in Jefferson’s life, his daughters, the daughter who died are coming to the surface for me as I am portraying him.”

On what she hopes audiences will learn from watching the show

“During the process of creating the show, scholar Annette Gordon-Reed of Harvard University told us that democracy and the Declaration of Independence are aspirational, meaning they are not certain, they are not a given but something that we, as a collective, are aspiring to and must continue to figure out. So, I think that when people walk out of the show, there should be a very high call, a dignified call to say, ‘How am I, as an American, going to move forward today in making the aspirational a reality. And that is an extraordinary thing to walk away with for a piece of theater.”

On how the Broadway industry can improve

“I personally think that it is an important task for every person who sits at the table of theater making—producers, union representatives, league representatives, actors—to have at least some working understanding of what the other people at the table do. The best leaders we are are bottom-up ones that really understand what everyone is doing and lead from that position of understanding. When we have a full, organic understanding of how the Broadway community functions, there will be less infighting and more understanding how we can partner. The functioning of Broadway is a mammoth organism.”

On that infamous interview that 1776 co-star Sara Porkalob recently gave

"My personal choice in this moment is to walk forward in unity in honor of my cast-mates, my creatives and everyone who has worked so hard to put this production together so other than unity and health I have no further comment."

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