Donna Biscoe had never even heard of Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan or Mary Jackson.
It wasn’t until she played Johnson’s mother in the movie “Hidden Figures” that she learned of the contributions the three black mathematicians made to the United States space program.
“The question everyone is asking is, ‘Why are we just now hearing about this?’” said the actress born at Fort Benning and now living in Atlanta. “You have to ask the question, ‘How many stories are out there in our community that we don’t know about? Important stories that need to be heard and seen?’”
Biscoe, 61, is a 1973 graduate of Kendrick High School and the daughter of Mildred Skillern, a retired Carver High School English teacher. In the movie, she plays Joylette Coleman, the older version of Johnson’s mother. The younger version is played by Karan Kendrick, another Georgia native, who came to Columbus last week to conduct a workshop with local girls at Hollywood Connection.
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Johnson is played by Taraji P. Henson, whom Biscoe describes as gracious, caring and a “real hoot.”
Biscoe is also known for her work in other movies such as “The Fundamentals of Caring” and “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1.”
She said her love for performance started at Carver High School, where she matriculated before transferring to Kendrick as part of integration. It was a physical education teacher, Miss Edwards, who introduced her to dance.
“I think Columbus was really the blossoming of my being interested in the arts,” she said, “ I always tell people, I think I was born to be a dancer, and I started that road in Columbus with Miss Edwards and just moved to other things.”
In the 1970s, Biscoe graduated from Clark College, now Clark Atlanta University, with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education. After college, she began working for Eastern Airlines as a flight attendant.
At the time, she had no acting experience. But one day, she had a chance encounter with a man on a flight from Atlanta to Minneapolis.
The man, it so happened, was in the process of producing an industrial show. They struck up a conversation, and Biscoe expressed an interest in acting. When they reached Minneapolis, the man asked her to be in his show.
“From there, I had head shots done just in case he needed one,” she said. “I took them to an agent and she started sending me out on auditions.”
To learn theater, Biscoe went to Lee Strasberg Theater Institute in New York for six months. When she returned to Atlanta, she began acting in plays. In her first performance, she played Martin Luther King Jr.’s mother in “A Boy King” at the Atlanta Children’s Theater.
Soon, Biscoe began appearing in films. The work was consistent when she was younger, she said, but it began slowing down as she entered her 50s.
“It’s really true what they say, the older you get, your jobs start drying up,” she said. “So for a period, I was hardly working, but thankfully there was always theater.”
The dry spell ended when she began playing moms and grandmas, she said. “My whole category changed, which was really cool. So I’ve been working a lot these days.”
In March, Biscoe will have reoccurring roles in “Greenleaf,” a drama series on OWN, and “Saints and Sinners,” a series on Bounce TV. She also continues to play parts in plays in Atlanta.
Biscoe said she knew “Hidden Figures” would be a success, but was floored when she saw the final product.
“I was just as awed and amazed as everybody else when I saw the movie in completion,” she said. “It was great working on the set. They were really cool people.”