Students rushed the stage as Viola Davis left Salomon Center after her presentation, sponsored by the Brown Lecture Board, Monday evening. The excitement and emotion of her words hung in the air. Davis’s speech elicited laughter, cheers, applause, snaps, murmurs of assent and three standing ovations.
Over 2,000 students entered the ticket lottery for the event, one of the biggest responses in recent years, said Allie Schaefer ’17, vice president of campus relations for Brown Lecture Board.
In recounting her path from the modest beginnings of a Central Falls, RI home through her education and into a Hollywood career, Davis said that her life thus far has played out like an epic journey.
Despite achieving success, Davis has still struggled to find herself at points in her career. She has long searched for what she called a “sweet elixir” — the key to her success that she can convey to people also hoping to escape an “ordinary” world.
At age 50, having become the first black woman to win the Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series, she’s found the elixir. It’s simple: “If you are not living a life bigger than yourself, then you’re not living a life at all.”
For Davis, living a life bigger than herself amounts to the work she does as an actress, producer and advocate. Davis founded her production company JuVee Productions with her husband in 2009. The company produces films, shows and web series with non-mainstream narratives.
During the question-and-answer session, Catherine Nacier ’19 asked: “Do you think that … actors and artists of color are required to be activists … because of their race?”
“In my fantasy, I feel like everyone is required to be an activist,” Davis said, noting that widespread marginalization should concern all people.
But for people of color, especially, Davis noted, “Your road is so difficult that you have to do something bigger than yourself to get in there,” adding that, “Wherever there’s a deficit, you gotta be an activist.”
Throughout her work, Davis has emphasized her humanity, which has guided her portrayal of Annalise Keating, the criminal defense lawyer on Shonda Rhimes’s hit show “How to Get Away with Murder.”
Davis brought the audience back with her to a one-room sharecropper’s home in South Carolina with no toilet or running water. It was 1965, and the midwife was late, so Davis’s grandmother delivered her. Her parents moved her “chocolate family” to “Central Falls, of all places,” landing the family in an apartment in a condemned building, she said. The plaster on the walls peeled, there were rats — big rats — but no plumbing and no telephone. Davis recounted how the mayor of Central Falls called the home a gift to Davis’s family. Davis wondered, “What, exactly, are you giving us?”
It was during her childhood in Central Falls that Davis began running — this time, literally — from a group of schoolboys who would chase her after school daily. They’d throw bricks and sticks at her, calling out to her and crying, “We want to kill you, you ugly, black nigger.”
But, Davis said, “I kind of settled into that life” — a life with an alcoholic father beating her mother every day, socks so tattered only the ankle piece was intact and daily torment from abusive classmates.
For a long time, she thought that her circumstances “defined who (she) was,” she said.
“But you know, you’re not your scars,” she added.
When she mentioned her hometown of Central Falls at the beginning of the lecture, Davis said coming to Brown is “a dream come true.”
“I want to say that my name is Viola Davis, and I am a hero.” The audience went wild. “When I say ‘hero,’ I don’t mean someone with a cape or a lasso. … I mean someone who has overcome adversity and weathered the storms.”
And weather the storms she did. Her mother recommended taking a crocheting needle and stabbing the boys instead of running from them — she did just that, and they quit bothering her. But the running kickstarted something inside of her: a feeling that there was more to life.
Davis’s sister confirmed this by encouraging her to think about what she wanted out of life — a tall order for a six-year-old. Those thoughts, along with watching Cicely Tyson on television, transformed Davis. She began dreaming of being an actress, which she credits with catapulting her out of the ordinary world into which she was born.
After studying on a scholarship at the Young People’s School for the Performing Arts, which she travelled to by bus for five-and-a-half hours round trip on school days, Davis attended Rhode Island College and earned a degree in theater.
Next, she had three goals: get a boyfriend (“he was a real crappy one, too,” she noted), travel and become a professional actress.
In choosing a school to attend, Davis said she played eenie meenie minie mo and picked the Juilliard School, which drew roaring laughter from the audience. In her endless work, she “mastered the technique of drive,” Davis said.
A period of deep hurt followed her initial success, Davis said — an imposter syndrome of sorts.
“There was something about (me) that still believed I was the ugly, black nigger, and I’m ashamed to say that,” Davis told a silent crowd. With her therapist’s help, she learned to love herself.
As an actress on “How to Get Away with Murder,” Davis uses Keating as a wielder of truth, breaking through the barriers surrounding what roles women of color can play and how those roles can be portrayed.
Madison White ’18 questioned how Davis combats the critique that Rhimes’ show “popularly repackag(es) the image of the angry black woman.”
Davis replied, “You know, I knew that question was going to come up tonight,” sipping her water. Challenging the preconception that there’s something wrong with being angry, Davis pointed again to the importance of celebrating women’s visions in the form of intricate, unstructured characters like Keating. In her aims to change the landscape of film and television, Davis refuses to be structured, she said.
“The most powerful thing you can do in art and narrative is to tell the truth,” she replied to a student’s question about reconciling her rage and pain with working to open up more opportunities for women of color.
And that is the beauty of being an actor, she added. “We are instruments of change. We are the only profession in the world that celebrates what it means to be human.”
Davis said she advocates that change by portraying complex characters filled with emotion and life, not characters who people — particularly people in positions of power — expect her to play.