An audience of Hollywood's most accomplished black actresses, musicians and entertainers sat rapt as "How to Get Away With Murder" star Aja Naomi King delivered a moving speech about imposter syndrome, cultural appropriation and inner critics.
"I don't know why I'm so eager to undermine my own talent," she said. "I guess because it feels easier to reduce my abilities than to step into the greatness of my purpose." She paused for a moment as the audience clapped wildly in recognition, in empathy.
"A lot of the time I feel like an imposter. The thing is, it can be scary to get everything you've ever dreamed of because now I have something to lose. The cost is high and the responsibility is great and I so desperately don't want to fall short of that and that fear can be overwhelming."
The speech, one of four alternately tear-jerking and knee-slapping speeches given at Essence's 10th annual Black Women in Hollywood Awards, came after an equally moving introduction by King's "How to Get Away With Murder" co-stars Alfred Enoch and Viola Davis. For a moment, Davis got visibly choked up as she introduced King to the stage.
"Honestly, I could go on and on about Aja and what she brings to the screen," the Oscar-winner said. "But as I stand at this point in my artistic journey, it makes me so proud to be part of hers. Aja, I love you. I can't wait to see what you become."
The awards, which in years past has traditionally been a luncheon, was hosted by Gabrielle Union at the Beverly Wilshire on Feb. 23 but is set to air tonight on Oprah's OWN network. Honorees included King, "Insecure" creator Issa Rae, "black-ish" teen Yara Shahidi and musician-cum-actress Janelle Monáe, who made her acting debut in "Moonlight," the film that would go on to win the best picture award at the Oscars only days later.
Spotted among the crowd were Angela Bassett, Tracee Ellis Ross, super-producer Shonda Rhimes, Common, singer Tyrese, Yvonne Orji ("Insecure"), Alfre Woodard, Meagan Good, Jurnee Smollett-Bell ("Underground"), LaKeith Stanfield ("Atlanta"), "Orange Is the New Black" stars Laverne Cox and Samira Wiley, and Beyoncé's mom, Tina Knowles-Lawson.
Rae was introduced to the stage by dance legend Debbie Allen, a childhood idol of Rae's. After heaping adulation onto Allen, Rae admitted, "I shouted you out in my speech already so I'ma save it," which elicited a laugh from the audience. She then recounted her first on-brand, super-awkward Essence Black Women in Hollywood red carpet experience from four years ago.
"I took a deep breath and then I stepped onto the carpet, hand on my hip," she said, demonstrating onstage. "And no sooner than five seconds after I stepped on the carpet then I heard, 'Oh, Laila Ali!' and everybody turned around." The crowd erupted in laughter.
"I stood in the middle of the carpet not sure what to do, and so a kind photographer helped me and he said, 'Hey, can you move? I'm trying to get Laila.'"
Rae's brilliantly funny speech was followed by a more somber one by Monáe, who was introduced by musician, fashion designer and "Hidden Figures" producer Pharrell Williams. She spoke about inclusivity, acts of service and the importance of women like her character Teresa in "Moonlight."
"Whenever I take on projects, I'm constantly thinking, 'How can I be of service? What can I do?'" she said. "And when I read for the role of Teresa in 'Moonlight,' some might have seen Teresa as just the drug dealer's girlfriend. But to me, Teresa reflects the need in our society to make sure we look out for each other."
"When we're told we're not good enough by those seeking to damage, defame, demoralize and delegitimatize our existence because of our gender, because of our race — things we can't change — we have the power to say 'Not today, Devil.'"
Tony Award-winner Cynthia Erivo ("The Color Purple") performed two ballads showcasing her powerhouse voice, including "God Only Knows," the Beach Boys cover she performed with John Legend at the Grammys last month. Following Erivo's performance, Golden Globe-winner Tracee Ellis Ross took the stage to introduce her TV-daughter Shahidi, at 17 the youngest honoree of the night.
"What I am doing in these beautiful designer clothes while the world is reeling backwards, people are being deported and discrimination is rearing its ugly head… I don't know what I'm doing," the young actress and self-professed activist said.
"What am I doing to contribute to the world around me? I'm fortunate because you all have taught me by example what the role of the artist is: to disrupt, to remold and to create. To disrupt this faulty system, to remold the foundation of this country into one in which we are all given equal opportunities, and to create a space in which our underlying humanity is recognized and our differences are celebrated."
Check out the full broadcast on OWN tonight at 10 p.m.
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Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles TimesViola Davis Meagan Good Shonda Rhimes Gabrielle Union