BWW Review: VIOLA DAVIS SLAYED DRAGONS at University Of South Florida Sun Dome
The line, as far as the eye could see, snaked around the Sun Dome with hopefuls waiting for to see if they'd receive the coveted yellow paper strip wrapped around their wrist.
Arriving as early as 230pm for an 8pm lecture after online RSVPs sold out minutes when it was announced on the USF website, people were patiently waiting to see if they'd make it through the door, first-come-first-serve, to listen to Voila Davis.
There are only a few things that I find awe-inspiring.
Seated in the front row of the Sun Dome for the student-run University Lecture Series, the centerpiece of its annual USF Week with over 3,500 guests listening to her story flow like spoken word poetry from Tony, Oscar and Emmy award-winning actress Viola Davis is a moment that I will clearly cherish as this.
The woman rose from abject poverty to become a beloved classically-Julliard-trained actress that has conquered stage, screen and television by living and now, sharing her own truth.
And she doesn't claim it was easy.
"I was born into an ordinary life where I didn't fit in," she said. "We weren't poor - we were po. That's a rung lower than poor."
She painted the story of determination and survival - a little girl that ran away from bullying boys who wanted to kill her, who called an ugly n-word and she responded with an upturned finger. She ran to rat-infested condemned home, a place where there was neither heat nor electricity or rarely any food to feed many mouths. She talked of one time screaming, being unable to stop screaming, collapsing in her bathroom begging God to take her away the night her alcoholic father was trying to break her mother's legs with a wooden board.
Never have I heard a mass of people so silent as I did to when we collectively took a breath in.
As a little girl, she watched a rabbit-eared TV with an extension cord, pirated electricity from another apartment. She discovered Cicely Tyson in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and decided then and there, that's what she was going to do.
At the tender age of 8 years, Viola found her purpose. She was going to be an actress. She was going to be famous. People would know her name and nothing was going to stop her.
And nothing did. She graduated high school, went to college and went to Julliard on scholarship.
Though she did work as an actress, she found herself typecast into the roles like bus driver, nurse, lawyer, "angry black woman." Despite her successes, she still felt ashamed of her past, that she was still that ugly n-word. Therapy helped her "own her story."
"My feet stopped moving, but my spirit was still running," she said.
It wasn't until her film breakthrough in 2008 in Doubt did Viola Davis start to become a household name.
Her supporting role in the drama earned her several nominations, including the Golden Globe, SAG, and the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. In 2010, she won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play for her role as Rose Maxson in the stage revival of August Wilson's play Fences. In 2011, she received nominations for the Golden Globe, BAFTA, and the Academy Award for Best Actress, and won a SAG Award for her lead role as 60s housemaid Aibeleen Clark in the comedy-drama The Help.
In 2012, she was listed by Time as one of The 100 Most Influential People in the World.
In 2016, she played Amanda Waller in the superhero action film Suicide Squad and reprised her role as Rose Maxson in the film adaptation of Fences, for which she has won the Golden Globe and Critics Choice Award and Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.
But the success that resonated most with the audience, that was met with lasting thunderous applause was her role as lawyer Annalise Keating in the 2014 ABC drama How to Get Away with Murder.
"I love that Annalise is a mess. That role is everything I've been fighting for."
She dared her audience to be unashamed of their history because it is "part of the story that made you who you were."
"Dare to live greatly. Be imperfect. Allow yourself to be vulnerable. Live a life bigger than yourself," she said. "Be a voice of change. Be willing to step up to the plate."
In 2015, she became the first black woman to win the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series for Annalise Keating. Her portrayal also won her two SAG Awards in 2015 and 2016.
In 2017, she received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
She talked repeatedly about slaying dragons with every success, about discovering "your elixir," finding what it is you want to live for.
Twice during her presentation an audience member cried out, "I love you" and she answered back, "I love you too."
She said it took therapy and years of experience for her to understand where her little girl inside was running to. At 51, she found her elixir and shares her story.
"Now I know what I am running to, what is my elixir," she paused. "Looking back on my life, I was stronger than I thought."
What I took away from this once-in-a-lifetime lecture is Viola opened herself to absorb the love and adoration from her audience and genuinely and willingly returned it.
She described acting as "standing in front of strangers naked and turning around real slow."
If that was the case, Viola, standing at the podium in black and white, was rotating slowing, allowing the audience to see her scars and imperfections, emotional cellulite and varicose veins, unabashedly unashamed.
Viola Davis now knew exactly who she was and the audience who loved her for her authenticity, applauded, greeted her with a standing ovation. I truly believe the little girl than once ran from the bullies was applauding loudest of all.