In her second year at Julliard, Viola Davis won a scholarship offered to students looking to expand their artistry. She went to Gambia, Africa with her friend Kris World, who was in the school’s dance program, and Chuck Davis, an African dance choreographer at the North Carolina School of the Arts who took a group to study the dance, music, and folklore of different tribes. The actress and author shares her experience during this pivotal time in her life.
In This Issue
I performed Topsy from George C. Wolfe’s The Colored Museum. It’s a character that imagines herself at a party with Martin Luther King drinking champagne out of Eartha Kitt’s slipper, Malcolm X having existentialist conversation. Then this party gets so rowdy that the floor started to shake, the walls started to move, and the entire room lifted up off the ground and went spinning and spinning until it disappeared, inside of her head.
“Yes, chile! That’s right. There’s a party going on right here because I’m dancing to the music of the madness in me. That’s why every time I walk down the street, my hips sashay from side to side because I’m dancing to the music of the madness in ME! And here all this time I thought we had given up our drums. But now still got ’em. They’re here. In my walk, my dress, my style, my smile, and my eyes. They’re inside here connecting me to everything and everyone that ever was. So . . . honey don’t try to label or define me, cuz I’m not who 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.”
They roared!!!! I had lost every bit of potency and belief in my work since entering Juilliard. In The Gambia, in the midst of my people, I found it. I found the party inside me. The celebration that needs to happen to combat the pain and trauma of memory. I found that there is no creating without using you.
For two years I thought the rule was to erase and negate oneself. That’s what I was doing. Lose the voice, speech, walk, face . . . lose the Blackness. Lose and bury the very essence of what makes you you and create something void of joy but steeped in technique.
After the thunderous roar, Chuck quieted everyone down and had us form a circle to pray. We said a prayer of thanks. We thanked them for their hospitality, wisdom. We thanked them for their love and said we would never forget them. They wept and cried and began to ululate. Then they began to dance and take out their drums, in the hotel. It, ironically, was that party I spoke about in my monologue. We were all dripping with sweat. Suddenly I saw Kris World’s face change. She shouted, “Viola. Look.” The crowd parted and behind the room was the shy nurse! I didn’t even know she was there. She was coming into the circle dancing!!! She was doing the dance we learned with the Jolas and she was doing it perfectly!! She was almost in a trance and she kept dancing until she was face-to-face with the choreographer Chuck Davis. He was staring at her, and she danced and danced until sweat, tears were pouring down.