Providence College Commencement Address
Viola Davis, an acclaimed star of stage and screen, received an honorary doctor of fine arts degree from Providence College and delivered the Commencement Address at the College's Ninety-Fourth Commencement Exercises. The following is a transcript of her speech. In the event's live-streamed video, the conferral of her degree begins at 24:00.
You know, when John Garrity [’73; PC associate professor of theatre arts] picked me up from the airport, I said, “Oh my goodness, I’m so nervous I’m going to be speaking in front of 1,200 people”, and he said, “Try a little bit more than that.” And I thought, “NOOOO!!”
But really, I am so honored to be here, to impart my infinite wisdom, and I mean that facetiously, at your birth, beginning, start, threshold, genesis, kickoff, launch, commencement. And I have to say that the content of my speech would have sounded totally different ten years ago, pre-marriage, pre-baby, pre-the passing of my father, pre-midlife. I would have made a lot of stuff up, and been very self- congratulatory and self-righteous about what a wonderfully dramatic speech I gave, but how I neither lived nor believed none of it. Thank God this is not ten years ago.
So, what can I give you? A long-time friend of mine, Leah Franklin, after a passionate, late- night discussion, inspired me with a powerful, honest quote, and I’ll try to do it in her voice: “Oh V, you know, nobody ever tells you that life sucks. I mean the only people who are happy are 2-year-olds and 80-year-old billionaires.” Now, I get the 2-year-olds but the 80-
Year-old billionaire I didn’t get. Well maybe Hugh Hefner, but ….
And for some reason that marinated in my head and the only image I had was from the movie, The Exorcist. You know when Ellen Burstyn comes home late to find her assistant frantic, her assistant then whisks her upstairs to her pre-teen daughter Reagan’s room, played by Linda Blair. The room is freezing, dark, and Reagan, who is not really Reagan, but a demon, tied to a bed, covered with scars, breathing heavily, the room is really cold… and the assistant says, “I wasn’t going to bother you with this, but I thought you had to see it.” She raises Reagan’s nightgown and on her abdomen, two words had been scratched: “Help me.” And I thought, “That is such a great metaphor for life.”
I’m going to hit you with something deep. You know, your authentic self is constantly trapped under the weight of the most negative forces in this world. And it will be an everyday battle. You know, sometimes I felt, and you will feel, that who you are is hidden away like a piece of really great jewelry that you keep in a box, and you only take it out during special occasions. Yet your everyday persona is a type of demonic possession. But the demons aren’t gargoyles or red-faced men with horns, but everyone else’s dreams, desires, definitions of success, greed, the pursuit of personality instead of character, the exchange of love and family, for money and possessions, entitlement with no sense of responsibility, and the most frightening demon of all, lack of purpose.
If I do not know who I am, it is because I think I am the sort of person everyone around me wants to be. Perhaps I’d never asked myself whether I really wanted to become whatever everyone else seems to want to become. Perhaps if I only realized that I do not admire what everyone seems to admire, I would really begin to live after all. You see the two most important days in your life are the day you were born and the day you discover why you were born. Now I have only been able to slay dragons when I have kept these two important facts in sharp focus, because at some point in life, it will indeed suck. Loss of a loved one, health issues, marriage, children, loss of passion, the discovery that what you thought you wanted in life … you don’t. You veer off course, but all that while, that purpose, that thing that you were specifically, divinely made for will be looming in front of you.
You know when I was 42, I was present at the passing of my father, and I remember the hospice worker telling my mom that he was very, very sick, and the only reason he was holding on was because he needed permission to go. She had to tell him and she couldn’t. Now, my vision of what I wanted to become and how I wanted to make a mark involved the musty, 1,200-seat theatres of New York City and the big screen. I wanted to be an artist. I had no vision of that 42-year-old woman at hospice, telling her dad to move on. And here I was, with him desperately reaching out, clinging for life, and telling him “Go.”
At 38, I got married in a white dress. I thought never in my life will I get married. I had dreams before the ceremony of taking an elevator to the 38th-floor of a building and stepping in and looking at me, and not the me of 38, but the me in my 20s. Only the 20-year-old me was standing there, dead, zombie. Someone told me, “Well, marriage is like a death…you die to yourself.” And there I was the next day, reciting those vows with great joy.
And children, no images of being a 46-year-old mother with a 2-year-old child entered the realms of my imagination. Yet once again, here I am, facilitating a life, guiding with the knowledge that I cannot protect, but only love. Stumbling at times, yelling internally, “Help me”, happy, disillusioned, exhausted, fulfilled, knowing that I am giving all I am, all I really am, to this life. It’s said that humans are the only creatures that stay at their mother’s bosoms the longest. Perhaps that’s why when we are thrust into the world, we flail and thrash, looking for a sanctuary, answers, to be saved. The good news is that the privilege of a lifetime is being who you are, and as for the demons…you exorcise them. How? To those who say, “What is my purpose?” I say, “You know.” And to those who know, I say, “Jump!”
The people, the heroes in our life have gone before us, the labyrinth is fully known and we’ve only to follow the thread of the hero path. And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find God, and where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves, and where we thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence. And where we thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.
And hey, you asked an actor to give your commencement speech, so, you know, the actor, the imagination, the flair, just goes wild. So the only thing once again churning through my head was a monologue from George C. Wolf’s The Colored Museum, and the character’s name is Topsy. They say it’s the most overdone monologue in the world. I say it can never be overdone, because the message is eternal. And Topsy talks about a function she went to one night, way uptown.
And baby, when I say uptown, I mean way, way , way , way, way, way, WAY uptown. Somewhere between 125th street and infinity. Inside was the largest gathering of black, Negro, colored Americans you’d ever want to see. Over in one corner you got Nat Turner sipping champagne out of Eartha Kitts’ slipper. Over in another corner you got Burt Williams and Malcolm X discussing existentialism as it relates to the shuffle ball change. Girl, Aunt Jemima and Angela Davis was in the kitchen sharing a plate of greens and just going off about South Africa. And then Fats sat down and started to work them 88s. And then Stevie joined in, and Miles, and Duke, and Ella, and Jimmy, and Charlie, and Sly, and Lightning, and Count, and Louie, and everybody joined in. And I tell you, they were all up there dancing to the rhythm of one beat, dancing to the rhythm of their own definition, celebrating in their cultural madness.… And then the floor started to shake, and the walls started to move, and before anyone knew what was happening, the entire room lifted up off of the ground, defying logic and limitations and just went a-spinning and a-spinning and a-spinning until it just disappeared inside of my head.
That’s right girl, there’s a party going on inside here. That’s why when I walk down the street my hips just sashay all over the place, ’cuz I’m dancing to the music of the madness in me. And whereas I used to jump into a rage whenever anyone tried to deny who I was, now all I do is give attitude, quicker than light, and go on about the business of me because I’m dancing to the madness in me. And here, all this time I’d been thinking we gave up our drums, but no, we still got them. I know I got mine. They here, in my speech, my walk, my hair, my God, my smile, my eyes and everything I need to get over this world is inside here, connecting me to everybody and everything that ever was. So honey, don’t try to label or define me because I’m not what I was ten years ago or ten minutes ago. I’m all of that and then some. And whereas I can’t live inside yesterday’s pain, I can’t live without it.
To the 1,200 heroes of Providence College, your commencement begins with the call to adventure and it comes full circle with your freedom to live, so I say, “Go on and live.” Thank you so much. I am so honored to be here at this time.
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