TAMPA — "Who is this Viola Davis woman?"
Thousands of fans at the University of South Florida Sun Dome thought they knew the answer Tuesday night when the Academy Award winner posed the question on stage.
Oscar-winning actor. Two-time Tony winner. Emmy honoree.
Yet those aren't Davis' greatest accomplishments.
Davis, 51, testified about a hard life before success, marred by abject poverty, racial and domestic abuse and various insecurities. Demons that Davis compared to a scene in The Exorcist, when the words "help me" erupted on a possessed girl's skin.
"That's how I see the journey of living one's authentic life," Davis said. "We're possessed by others' dreams. …
"But in there is a voice, a space in your body that lets you know exactly who you are.
"My name is Viola. And I am a hero, but I don't have a cape. I don't have superpowers."
Instead, Davis evoked the teachings of Joseph Campbell, a concept of the hero's quest from ordinary beginnings to extraordinary ends.
"I got the call to adventure," Davis said. "Just a call to live a life beyond myself."
Much of Davis' presentation dealt with life long before fame, before Fences and ABC's How to Get Away with Murder placed her at the forefront of American actors. A life lived in "abject poverty" in South Carolina with a drunken, abusive father, submissive mother and bigoted classmates.
"I wasn't poor, I was 'po,' " she said. "That's a rung lower than poor."
Davis recalled being kept awake at night by the sound of pigeons eating rats infesting her home, and boys chasing her after school, hurling rocks and epithets.
"I knew how to run, chuck a (middle) finger and cuss somebody at the same time," Davis said.
Her revelation came while watching Cicely Tyson's landmark performance in the 1974 movie The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.
"I knew then what I would do," Davis said, "who I wanted to be."
That sort of personal assertion was at the heart of her lecture.
"Own your own story," she counseled. "People go around looking for the meaning of life.
"What they really want is the experience of feeling alive."
Even before her Oscar win, Davis had already established herself as one of the top actors working today. She starred in the films Doubt in 2008 and The Help in 2011. How to Get Away with Murder just wrapped up its third season.
Davis' appearance concluded USF's current lecture series. She was booked to appear in Tampa shortly before winning the Academy Award for best supporting actress for Fences, the role that previously earned her a Tony Award in 2010.
Davis' $70,000 fee for the appearance looks like a bargain now. A representative of All American Speakers booking her engagements said Tuesday that her price range now is $150,000 to $200,000 depending on the gig.
Contact Steve Persall at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.