She applied for a scholarship that would allow her to spend the summer in Gambia. In her application essay, Davis wrote about the burden of performing material that wasn’t written for people like herself. There was no cultural connection or recognition — she felt lost and uninspired. That summer, she was on a flight to West Africa, with a group of people who wanted to study the music, dance and folklore of various tribes.
Immediately after landing, she fell in love: the ocean wind, the faint smell of incense, the oranges and purples of twilight. The people of the Mandinka tribe, with whom she visited, embraced her group like family. She went to a baby-naming ceremony, a wrestling match; she watched as women drummed and danced. Her fixation with “classical training” melted away. Finally, after years of acting, she was witnessing art, true genius. “I left Africa 15 pounds lighter, four shades darker and so shifted that I couldn’t go back to what was,” she writes.
Her time at Juilliard was ending, and she was eager to jump into a new chapter of her life, but all the roles she auditioned for — even in Black productions — were limiting: The only roles she was being seriously considered for were drug addicts. She tried out for other parts, but casting directors thought she was “too dark” and “not classically beautiful” enough to play a romantic lead.
A few plays came her way, but she barely made enough money to live on, let alone pay off her tens of thousands of dollars in student loans. She survived on white rice from a Chinese restaurant, with $3 wings if she could afford it; she slept on a futon on the floor of a shared room.
Her agent asked her to audition for the touring company of August Wilson’s “Seven Guitars,” for the role of the strong-willed and guarded Vera, who must decide if she can trust her cheating ex-boyfriend again. She got the part, and after touring for a year, she made her Broadway debut. She received a Tony nomination for the role, but her life was hardly glamorous. A few of her siblings, she writes, were struggling with drugs or money issues, and her parents, still together, cared for some of their children. Davis sent home as much money as she could, racked with a sort of survivor’s guilt. “If I saved anyone, I had found my purpose, and that was the way it was supposed to work,” she said. “You make it out and go back to pull everyone else out.”
After her success in “Seven Guitars,” theater parts came steadily, and she finally made enough money to afford premium health insurance. An operation to remove nine uterine fibroids gave her a small window of fertility. She was in her early 30s, and every child she passed on the street made her want her own, but she had been in only two relationships, neither of them any good, and there was no one on the horizon. One of her castmates in a production of “A Raisin in the Sun” encouraged her to ask God for a nice man. One night, she got down on her knees: “God, you have not heard from me in a long time. I know you’re surprised. My name is Viola Davis.” She went through her requests: a Black man, a former athlete, someone from the country, someone who already had children. A few weeks later, on the set of a television show, Julius Tennon — a handsome, divorced Black actor from Texas with two grown children — played opposite her in a scene.
Within four years, they were married. But the reproductive challenges kept coming: She had a myomectomy, this time to remove 33 fibroids. It felt as though the women in her family were cursed. Two of her sisters nearly bled to death after labor and had hysterectomies. Some years later, she had one, too — during an operation on an abscessed fallopian tube. (Before going under, she told the surgeon, “Let me tell you something, if I wake up and my uterus is still here, I’m going to kick your ass.”) With Tennon, she eventually adopted a daughter, Genesis, inspired by the fellow actress Lorraine Toussaint, who adopted a child because she didn’t want “series regular” to be the only words on her tombstone.