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"I was crying. I was 5 or 6 years old. I was a crybaby," recalls Viola Davis of joining her mom at protest at Brown University

By Gillian Telling
November 23, 2020 11:01 AM
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She's an Emmy winner, and Oscar winner and a two-time Tony Award winner, but growing up in relative poverty in Central Falls, Rhode Island, Viola Davis just dreamed of better things.

So did her mother, Mae Alice, who worked as a maid and in factories. In the December/January issue of AARP the Magazine, Davis, 55, opens up about joining her mother at protests, where Alice would push for equality and better services for an underserved community.

"One in particular was at Brown University," Davis recalls. "The police threw us in the paddy wagon, and I was crying. I was 5 or 6 years old. I was a crybaby! It was all about welfare reform. She was the only African-American in the group, but she and several women, working-poor parents, showed up to fight for reform so we could have a more self-sufficient way of life."

Viola Davis - AARP the Magazine
Credit: AARP the Magazine

Davis says that her mother pushed for programs like "Head Start" in their community so the family wouldn't have to rely on social assistance. Her hard work eventually paid off.

"They got a health center built right next door to the Blackstone Valley Community Action Program," Davis says proudly. "We all went to after-school programs there for as long as I can remember, with sewing, crocheting, knitting, nutrition classes. That's all we were allowed to do. My mom said, 'Y'all are gong to be at those classes every Tuesday through Friday after school.'"

Davis tells the magazine she knew at a young age that she'd have to work harder than most people to get ahead in life—which is exactly what she did.

Viola Davis arrives at the Premiere of Amazon Studios' 'Troop Zero' at Pacific Theatres at The Grove on January 13, 2020
Credit: Jerod Harris/FilmMagic

The magazine notes that at school, Davis was ostracized because of her dark skin in a predominantly white environment. Davis  excelled in her classes and eventually attended the Juilliard School in New York City, where her acting career was born.

Next up, Davis stars in Netflix's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, alongside the late Chadwick Boseman. In the film, she plays a blues singer in the 1920s. She relished the role.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is based on August Wilson's 1982 play about the "Mother of Blues" Ma Rainey (Davis) and her experience with white management at the time. The movie takes place in 1927 Chicago and explores the racial tension in the music world as white record executives profited off of Black artists.

"She was unapologetic about her sexuality, unapologetic in terms of her value as a recording artists, and in terms of what she wanted, unapologetic about her blackness," Davis says of Rainey.  "I think today she would be considered a liberated woman in every way, a woman before her time."