The sound of rats eating pigeons. No food. No plumbing. Her father threatening to break her mother’s legs. Boys chasing her with bricks and sticks on her way home, yelling racial slurs at her.
These are Viola Davis’s most vivid memories of her childhood, which she shared with her audience at the USF Sun Dome on Tuesday night.
As she recounted these memories, the approximately 2,700 students and community members that filled the Sun Dome to the third level fell silent.
Davis, an award-winning actress, shared with the audience her journey from a life of poverty to her current success.
“I was someone who was born into a very ordinary life where I did not fit in,” Davis said.
She spoke of her birth at her grandmother’s house, the child of two parents not educated past middle school, and her childhood growing up in an apartment in a condemned building in Rhode Island. The building she grew up in was infested with rats and had chunks of the stairways missing.
Her life at school wasn’t much easier. She remembered always queuing up for the door first because as soon as the bell rang, she would run home to try to avoid the same eight or nine boys who would chase her down and yell insults and slurs at her.
“I knew how to run, chuck a finger and curse someone out at the same time,” Davis said. “But I ran.”
Davis was one of five children. When her other siblings came to live with her and her parents, her sister asked her what she wanted to be.
“I said, ‘I don’t know,’ and she said ‘well, you got to figure it out,’” Davis said.
She knew she didn’t want to be her parents. She especially did not want to become her mother.
“I wanted to discover why I was born because I knew it wasn’t that,” Davis said.
One thing her apartment did have, by means of electricity harvested from another apartment via a long extension cord, was a TV. On that TV, Davis watched “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” a TV movie starring Cicely Tyson.
It was then that Davis decided to become an actor. She and her sisters entered a skit contest in their community with a wardrobe budget of $2.50. They won. Their prize was a plastic softball set that came with a red bat.
“We used that to kill the rats,” Davis said.
She said she acted every chance she got. She was in theater in high school. She won awards. She went to college for theater. She took a year off to travel the world, get a boyfriend and become a professional actor. She went to Julliard. At 28, she finished at Julliard. But then, she hit a wall.
“I was like, ‘Who the hell am I?’” Davis said. “And I remember thinking ‘why can’t I feel happy?’”
She couldn’t find the joy in the ambition she had previously had. So she went to therapy and connected with a shame she had long suppressed.
“My feet stopped moving but my spirit was still running,” Davis said.
She remembered the humiliation of poverty and the humiliation of being bullied because of the color of her skin. She knew that something had to change. She said she realized that everything placed in her life was a part of her, whether good or bad.
“I am saying that what I was running from was not owning my story,” Davis said.
After this, Davis said she found more confidence. She also discovered that doors were closed to her in Hollywood for reasons based on race and gender and other things, as she could only find roles that fit a certain image. She stressed that as an actor she is in the business of creating human beings, not images, and those human beings need to be multidimensional.
“If I walked in, a walking lie, how can I tell that story?” Davis said.
She also found in her own community a backlash against exposing one’s vulnerabilities. Davis said she doesn’t know how to live her life and not show all of herself, including her vulnerabilities. She said people don’t show what makes them vulnerable for fear of shame, but said shame cannot exist when one shares their story with people who are empathetic.
“There is not one person in this room that does not have mess and that mess is what makes you vulnerable,” Davis said.
However, she said that vulnerability serves as a building block to their lives, and acknowledging all of their life experiences is an acknowledgment of all that defines them.
“You cannot live otherwise,” Davis said. “There’s no one else to be.”
Davis wouldn’t describe herself as a confrontational person, but when she knew she had to step up to the plate find a role that worked for her, she was willing.
“I needed to be the change,” Davis said. “I needed to be the voice.”
So she demanded that in her role on “How to Get Away with Murder” she not have to make her character conform to typical models of sexy or leading lady.
“I want to be exactly who I am,” she said.
She encouraged the audience to live their own whole stories and also not to live too tame of a life.
“Living wild has its own rewards,” Davis said. “My gift to you is dare to live greatly. Dare to be imperfect. Just try it.”