She applied for a grant that would allow her to spend the summer in The Gambia. In her interview 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 different tribes.
Immediately after landing, she fell in love: the ocean breeze, the faint scent of incense, the oranges and purples of the twilight. The people of the Mandinka tribe, whom she visited, embraced her group like family. She went to a baby naming ceremony, a wrestling match; she saw women drumming and dancing. Her fixation on “classic training” melted away. Finally, after years of acting, she witnessed art, truly genius. “I left Africa 15 pounds lighter, four shades darker and shifted so much I couldn’t go back to what was,” she writes.
Her time with Juilliard was drawing to a close and she was eager to start a new chapter in her life, but all the roles she auditioned for—even in Black productions—were limited: the only roles she was seriously considered for. were drug addicts. She tried other roles, but casting directors deemed her “too dark” and “not classically beautiful” enough to play a romantic lead.
A few plays came her way, but she barely made enough 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 asks her to audition for August Wilson’s “Seven Guitars” tour company, for the role of the strong-willed and guarded Vera, who must decide whether she can trust her cheating ex-boyfriend again. She landed the part and after a year of touring, she made her Broadway debut. She received a Tony nomination for the role, but her life was hardly glamorous. Some of her siblings, she writes, struggled with drug or money problems, and her parents, who were still together, took care of some of their children. Davis sent home as much money as possible, haunted by a sort of survivor guilt. “If I had saved someone, I would have found my purpose, and that was the way it was supposed to work,” she said. “You take it out and go back to take everyone else out.”
After her success in “Seven Guitars,” the theater parts came steadily and she finally made enough money to pay for premium health insurance. Surgery to remove nine fibroids gave her a small window of fertility. She was in her early thirties and every kid she met on the street made her want to have her own, but she’d only had two relationships, neither of them good ones, and there was none 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 evening she fell to her knees: ‘God, you haven’t heard from me in a long time. I know you are surprised. My name is Viola Davis.” She went through her requests: a black man, a former athlete, someone from the countryside, 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 – starred opposite her in a scene.
They were married within four years. But the reproductive challenges kept coming: She had a myomectomy, this time to remove 33 fibroids. It felt like the women in her family were cursed. Two of her sisters nearly bled to death after giving birth and had hysterectomies. Several years later, she also had one – during surgery for an abscess in the fallopian tube. (Before going down, she told the surgeon, “Let me tell you something, if I wake up and my uterus is still there, I’m going to kick your ass.”) With Tennon, she eventually adopted a daughter, Genesis , inspired by fellow actress Lorraine Toussaint, who adopted a child because she didn’t want “serious” to be the only word on her tombstone.