By Kenya Vaughn
There are points in the life of actor Olajuwon Davis that play out like a Shakespearian tragedy – particularly the unfortunate series of events that led to him serving seven years in a federal prison.
When he started to reflect on his incredible story, a line from the Tupac Shakur classic “Dear Mama” was the first idea that popped into his head.
“Who’d have thought in elementary, that I would see the penitentiary one day,” Davis recited. “That speaks to my own experience in a way that’s crazy when I think about it.”
But what sets his story apart from Shakespeare’s tales of epic demise is that Davis is that he has been granted the grace to redeem himself – particularly by way of the stage.
“My story is filled with various ups and downs and climatic points of the human experience, from betrayal and imprisonment to love, grace and freedom – both literal and proverbial,” Davis said “I’m still living my story and it’s still unfolding. But as far as the things I am experiencing at this point – this next act – it’s about a comeback.”
Ironically, he is among the ensemble of actors in the Black Rep’s presentation of Carlyle Brown’s The African Company Presents Richard III which opened last week at Washington University’s Edison Theatre. Davis plays William Henry Brown, a theater producer who is jailed along with his actors for being a Black theatrical troupe with the audacity to perform Shakespeare in New York City back in 1821. The play is inspired by the true-life events and opens The Black Rep’s 46th season.
The production also stars Wali Jamal Abdullah, Coda Boyce, Cameron Jamarr Davis, Alex Jay, Dustin Lane Petrillo and Eric Dean White and is directed by Ron Himes.
Davis is no stranger to the Black Rep stage. He appeared as a youth in The Black Rep’s 2008 production of Sarafina, The African Company Presents Richard III is the third mainstage production performance for Davis since his release from prison in February of 2020.
He arrived in Ferguson on August 9, 2014 to protest the death of Mike Brown after seeing a video of the teen’s body lying on the ground that was circulating on social media.
“It wasn’t in Florida (referring to Trayvon Martin). It wasn’t in any other place. It was down the street,” Davis said. “And if I am who I say I am, then I have to answer the call to action. I threw my clothes on and went down there. I had to show up for me and my community – to say I tried to contribute.”
Watching a biopic about Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sparked a commitment to activism at the tender age of five years old. He became a protest leader in Ferguson as part of the New Black Panther Party. His visibility caught the attention of the FBI.
“I knew that the path that I had begun to walk as far as activism and speaking truth to power that the worst consequence could be death,” Davis said. “I had been constantly shown this example of when you stand up against oppressive systems the consequences can be very tragic. I believed that I would die more-so than going to prison.”
From incarceration to liberation
Davis was caught up in a sting that resulted in him serving seven years. Prior to his arrest – which was the result of his attempt to purchase explosives on behalf of individuals who turned out to be FBI informants – he had no criminal record.
“When you are in a mode of survival and you have that ‘ride or die’ mentality, it opens you up to make decisions that are not of your best interest – or the best interest of humanity,” Davis said.
But he was adamant that he never, ever planned on hurting anyone.
“As far as my case, participating in criminal activity wasn’t my original thought. It wasn’t an organic thought,” Davis said. “It was something that was given to me. It was something that was suggested. And what you consume, you consider. I want to be clear that despite what has been said about me, I never had any intentions to commit acts of violence.”
Reading and exercise were his go-to coping mechanisms for mentally adjusting to the initial trauma of adopting the lifestyle of an inmate. But his saving grace was his strong support system – and his spirituality.
He connected with the Ifa religion of West Africa. According to Davis, it is a type of faith which focuses on character and walking in their destiny. He began to study it intensely and incorporate it into his daily life. “Honestly, that was my primary source of strength,” Davis said. “Anytime I felt like I was discouraged – and I didn’t think I could make it – I thought about the tremendous sacrifice – whether it was through blood, sweat and tears – that my ancestors endured just so that I could even exist. If my ancestors could survive slavery and all of those things, I can do seven years.”
He was released just weeks before the world shut down in response to the COVID-19 pandemic – and three months before the murder of George Floyd sparked international protest. His incarceration compelled him to explore activism from a new perspective.
“Now, with going to prison and coming out, I have been reinvigorated and my spirit has been motivated to live for change as opposed to being willing to die for it,” Davis said.
He considers the stage as his primary vehicle for change and feels that a major selling point of The African Company Presents Richard III is in its demonstration that Black joy and Black excellence are nothing new.
“Just as we strive today to exemplify and demonstrate those attributes in our lives today, we have examples who have already done it 200 years ago,” Davis said. “This play takes place at a time when slavery was still booming – and they were considering us three-fifths of a human. If you are finding it hard to identify with anything other than being oppressed, know that it’s not our whole narrative. It’s a fraction of it – and the smallest part.”
The same can be said of Davis’ own story as he points out that arts and culture are at the forefront of every revolution and are responsible for facilitating the transformation process of evolution in human consciousness.
“I am having the opportunity to channel the energy of this individual who even at that time sought to use the arts to define their experience and express themselves – and it was a form of protest,” Davis said of the upcoming play. “Ron Himes is the William Henry Brown of today, by keeping Black theater alive and living – and it’s making it a place where a person like me can come in and liberate myself.”
The Black Rep’s presentation of The African Company Presents Richard III continues through September 25 at Washington University’s Edison Theatre. For tickets or additional information, call (314) 534-3807 or visit www.theblackreporg.