Actor Isaiah Washington’s biggest moment in the celebrity spotlight isn’t exactly one he wants to remember.
Washington was just a year and a half into playing the role of Dr. Preston Burke on the ABC hit series Grey’s Anatomy when it all went south after a well-publicized blowup on the set in October 2006.
Washington let loose with a homophobic slur while on the set; a controversy ensued involving his costar T.R. Knight, who later announced that he was gay. By the end of the show’s season in June, ABC had written Washington’s character out of the script and severed its contract with him.
After five years and barely a dozen roles in TV shows and movies, Washington says he is a man with a new mission: development in Africa.
“I think, just innately, I’ve been very interested to get to this day,” said Washington, 48, after appearing last week before the House Foreign Affairs Africa and Human Rights Subcommittee. “I’ve waited for this day for 40 years.”
In his book published last year, A Man From Another Land: How Finding My Roots Changed My Life, Washington describes how he discovered his genetic link to the Mende and Temne people in Sierra Leone.
An intense interest in the West African nation blossomed and led to his starting the Gondobay Manga Foundation (named after a legendary Mende warrior), with a goal of bringing electricity, roads, and clean water to rural areas one village at a time. In November 2007, the foundation opened its first school in the Njala Kendema village for 150 students. Washington cites the teachings of W.E.B. DuBois as his inspiration.
Beyond his work with the foundation, Washington was granted Sierra Leonean citizenship by President Ernest Koroma and was inducted as Chief Gondobay Manga in May 2006 — five months before his offscreen drama at Grey’s Anatomy began. The actor testified last week in favor of a bill to boost U.S. exports to Africa.
Washington has demonstrated that he isn’t letting the controversy that many people recall when they hear his name ruin his life or his career.
“People were saying, you know, a dark-skinned man with a dimple on his chin is never going to be sexy in film or television,” Washington said with a laugh. “Well, I’m not going to speak on that. But I think I proved them wrong.”
This article appears in the April 24, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.