Viola Davis is a hero and I got to see her at Brown last night

‘If you’re not living a life bigger than yourself, then you’re not living at all’

When I found out that Viola Davis would be gracing us with her presence this semester I was unbelievably excited. The Brown Lecture Board organizes two lectures a year and last semester we had Jane Goodall. Unfortunately, I did not win a lottery ticket for that lecture, but I knew that no matter what I would be at Viola Davis’ lecture. No ifs, buts or maybes.

When I entered into the lottery and found out I won a ticket I actually burst into tears. I was going to be in the same room as the Queen of my Thursday nights. For many, she is Annalise Keating from How To Get Away With Murder or Aibileen from The Help, but she is more than that to me. Viola Davis is one of the first leading roles in Hollywood that looks like me with her ebony dark skin and kinky hair. That is significant. It’s significant of the fact that leading black female roles are underrepresented in Hollywood and theatre, as well as of the fact that throughout my early adolescence I never once saw characters like me on television. It definitely affected how I perceived myself and I perceived beauty.

Viola’s lecture was an intimate window into herself. She started her lecture by saying, “I am Viola Davis, and I am a hero.” In that one statement, she crushed gender norms and stereotypes of female modesty. She overcame adversity and although this triumph is not unique to her, her ability to own and take pride in her own story was extremely refreshing. Despite growing up in abject poverty and despite being called “ugly black nigger” and chased by eight white boys after school each day, she did not let her life define who she was. She said: “You are not your scars.”

Viola Davis with first-year student Rufaro Sithole

Her path to fame was not paved with with gold, but instead a testament to her vision and foresight. Inspired by her sister Diane who she met when she was 6 years old as well as Cicely Tyson who she said inspired her love for acting, her passion catapulted her to new opportunities. From the Young People’s School of Performing Arts to Rhode Island College and Julliard, she was determined to not only escape her situation of being raised by an abusive alcoholic father and a mother in condemned buildings in Central Falls, RI, but to be successful. She wanted to be great, win awards and have roses thrown to her on stage – and she was able to do all this and more.

Davis described her biggest treasure in life as finding her purpose. “The beauty of being an artist is that we are instruments of change. Our art form celebrates what it means to be human,” she said. This truly encapsulates the raw emotion that she brings to all her roles.

The message that resonated with me in her lecture was: “What is it that you could leave on this Earth that will live far past beyond you – and what is stopping you?” She posed these questions towards the end of her time with us. It left me wondering: what are  my dreams, goals and passions? What  barriers are in my way – either of my own creation or imposed on me – which are hindering me from pursuing and achieving these dreams?

“Risk more, love deeper, leave a legacy. Do whatever you do boldly.”

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