2016 Undergraduate Commencement Address by Mahershala Ali ’96

by May 23, 2016 | May 23, 2016

Introduction by Saint Mary’s Provost Bethami Dobkin:

Our speaker today is one of the most talented and sought-after actors in Hollywood. This 1996 Saint Mary's graduate didn't come here with an acting career in mind. Mahershala Ali, who entered the College on a basketball scholarship, found his passion in a different kind of performance. His connections with faculty and Brothers inspired him to connect his life experiences with artistic expression and performing on the stage gave his life a new direction in the arts. Most recently Mahershala can be seen on the award-winning Netflix original series House of Cards. His television appearances include Lifetime’s The Wronged Man, for which he received an NAACP nomination for best actor. Mahershala’s film credits include his role as Boggs alongside Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games series, The Place Beyond the Pines with Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper, Crossing Over with Harrison Ford, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, also with Brad Pitt. He recently finished production of the independent film Moonlight, co-produced by Brad Pitt and this month appears in the Civil War era drama The Free State of Jones opposite Matthew McConaughey. On the stage, Mahershala made his New York Broadway debut in Kenny Leon’s Smart People. Additional stage credits include The Great White Hope, The Long Walk, Jack and Jill, Dolls House, Monkey in the Middle, and The Merchant of Venice.

Born in Oakland and raised in Hayward, Mahershala earned his bachelor of arts degree in communication from Saint Mary's. He made his professional debut performing with the California Shakespeare Festival in Orinda, California, and soon after earned a graduate degree from New York University. Mahershala is a testament to the power of faculty in helping students find and follow their passion. He has said “I can confidently say that I would have never have gotten into a graduate acting program if it weren't for the guidance and love I received from the professors at Saint Mary's College. Please join me in welcoming this outstanding alumnus, Mahershala Ali.

Mahershala Ali:

Good morning. You must be special. I thought we were in a drought. I'd like to thank President Donahue for so generously extending the invitation for me to be here today. I want to recognize all the faculty and professors who are the backbone of this wonderful institution and truly give our degrees credence. And to the parents. I know that this occasion is bittersweet as you come to the harsh realization that your children are now headed for graduate school. And it is just as expensive as undergrad. Good luck with that and to the graduating class of 2016. Congratulations. It's an honor and such a privilege to share in your day of accomplishment and completion.

I’d like to begin by reading something—a card that I hold very dear, one that I've carried with me over the past twenty years. This card was given to me two weeks before I sat where you now sit awaiting my diploma. I've always been one who believed in signs of sorts, guidance and divine placement, and this card is a uniquely important symbol in my life because it has served as evidence of a larger presence.

As excited as I was to graduate in May of ’96 I was honestly a bit terrified. Like so many of you, I had never known life absent of school and the structure that it provided for a relatively ambitious yet anxious dreamer like myself. Graduation was quickly approaching and I had just completed a couple interviews for jobs in the corporate arena—pharmaceutical sales or something of that nature and, no offense to anyone in pharmaceutical sales, but I left those interviews and started looking for a tall building to jump off because I knew in my heart of hearts that corporate America didn't suit me. It was clear to me that I wasn't wired for a white collar world.

In my time here I'd done two plays, the first being House of Blue Leaves my sophomore year of 1993. How I was even cast in this play was a bit of a fluke. Professor Rebecca Engle of the Theatre Department had seen me. Yes. Professor Rebecca Engle had seen me running my mouth on the panel of a diversity seminar here on campus and she thought I might be right for a small part in a production. She was looking for someone big, someone intimidating and perhaps extroverted enough to stand comfortably on a stage. So I guess I fit the bill. So after basketball practice I’d run over to rehearsal, do my little bit go back to my dorm room, chase the girls, procrastinate on any one of several overdue papers. You know the drill. So, we had perhaps three or four performances and that was it. I honestly didn't think much of it.

In April of 1996, my senior year, the second play, also directed by Rebecca Engle, was a fantastic piece entitled Spunk. In terms of college productions, the play was a huge success, standing room only. It was a brave undertaking on Rebecca's part because for the first time in the theatrical history of the school they produced a black play. So, yes. So in some regards it was groundbreaking and I had the time of my life. I felt alive with a sense of purpose that I hadn't yet experienced up to that point.

But when it was all over, the reality of life after school began to hit home hard. For the first time in my life, I could feel the undertow of the unknown and it was at that moment, a professor in the Communication Department threw me a raft in the form of a card. The card reads “Dear Mahershala, what a solid performance in Spunk. ‘Born to it’ is what I kept thinking as I marveled at your acting ability. I don't know what you plan to do after graduation but if acting classes are part of it, I hope you will find your way to teachers who challenge you to go deep and act from the keesters. You have the power to do that. Too few do. So honor the gift. It’s a sacred thing. All best, Victoria Trostle. May 5, 1996.” Thank You. See, they still look out for you.

With that bit of guidance, nine months later, I was one of 18 people accepted in N.Y.U.’s Tisch School of the Arts, which at that time was the best graduate acting program in the country. I owe a debt of gratitude to this institution, to Victoria Trostle and the countless professors that threw me rafts in my time here at Saint Mary's College. Now, it would be easy to stand up here sporting the facade of accomplishments and successes. But the truth is, as a professional I've come up short time and time again. I've been denied and heard the word no too many times to count. Despite our differences in age, in some ways we are very much the same. Collectively we are a people in process. I am more of a work in progress than I am a success. To attain and eventually nurture the fulfillment that we all individually imagine we have to be active dreamers.

What is different about us is that the technologies of your generation that are now commonplace affords you access and opportunities for one that I didn't have at your age. But they also put you at a disadvantage because there was less real estate for imagination and emptiness and the quiet mind. Social media has colonized what was once a sacred space occupied by emptiness, the space reserved for thought and creativity. My friends in college, several of whom are still my closest companions, would tell you that I was almost obsessed with becoming, fixated on creating the future that I envisioned for myself. One of expanding to know my fullest self, which I have in no way achieved. So, I am like you. I'm in process.

Understand that we are all co-creators of our respective destinies. This undervalued empty space is the playground for your intuition and conscious thought. Thought which transforms into action; action which results in the manifestation of what you envision, not only for yourself but for the world around you. In my humble opinion, the ages 22 to about 27 are the most critical years of your adult life. It's your time to gestate in the cocoon of becoming. There's a window that begins to close after that, where it's by no means impossible but it's extraordinarily difficult to begin anew and find your unique path simply due to how our society is constructed. So the work, the energy, the focus, envisioning, active dreaming, that is all encapsulated in those years in that short window would determine where you are and who you stand before twenty years from this day. There are three things I want to offer you that have served to sustain me over the past two decades. Simple things to grasp individually, but intertwined and in combination, believe they can carry you to the point of fulfillment that we all desire and perhaps deserve.

First I'd like to offer you patience. If you took a moment to look up patience in the dictionary you'll find that it's described by words like endurance, sufferance, and suppression. Patience at its root is a Latin word which literally means to suffer. My wife can bear witness to this as she seen this happen on several occasions the relatively common exchange that I have. Someone will stop me on the street and say something to the effect of “Hey, sorry to bother you. Love your work. So how do I become an actor? I really want to act. I'm a natural.” It's true, it happens all the time, and my response is always the same. Training, you have to train. It's analogous to becoming a musician. You have to learn your instrument with with what I hope is a desire to master the craft. Then I often observe, his or her face will scrunch up, not particularly loving my response. And as we talk a bit longer I tend to discover that acting is a thing that people believe you can just do and if it comes natural have some degree of instantaneous success, fame and wealth. Our culture suffers from the plague of immediacy which doesn't serve our respective physical realities. And the truth is there is no skill or craft of any real value where one can have a successful sustainable career with the snap of a finger. There are no genies. We have to endure the process, tolerate ourselves in real time through the wait, construct our vision, improve, reflect with comprehension, sacrifice and embrace the willingness to suffer. Butterflies are a thing of absolute beauty but they all once knew life on the ground. Patience.

I offer you perseverance which is defined as a steady persistence and a course of action, a purpose, a state in spite of difficulties obstacles or discouragement. I experienced an impactful failure while here at Saint Mary's College.

I believe I was still in elementary school when I first voiced that I wanted to play Division 1 college basketball. Years later I was so fortunate to get to do just that right here. It was an achievement that infused not only myself but my family with pride as only a handful of my relatives had ever had the opportunity to attend college. But something happened very early on. I got discouraged, discouraged by what I viewed as my coach's inability to reach and connect with us as anything more than product, steppingstones on a quest to win titles. His inability to inspire and improve us as athletes and men truly got the best of me. This view wasn't shared unanimously, but me being a porous and relatively sensitive individual, embraced this point of view and at some point during my sophomore year I responded by essentially quitting. I checked out. I lost hope. I can almost count how many times I picked up a basketball since 1996 and for significant period of time that choice to give up which I don't necessarily believe was even conscious, but that choice became a shadow ever present whether the lights were on or off, because we all have a tendency to project expectations onto others that stem from our own individual needs and it becomes quite easy for people to fail you or to let us down. But when you let go of your dream, your passions, and embrace discouragement, that is perhaps initiated by another's inability to see your value and potential—you have failed yourself. It's an act of treason. Once I took personal responsibility for my own shortcomings in my approach to athletics the shadow became an ally, and it has served me through the ever present hindrances I faced on my journey as an artist an actor. Once when I almost quit graduate school after my second year at N.Y.U. and again after I was fired after 19 episodes of my first television series in 2002. You have stayed the course. Obstructions, resistance and denial are simply an education in one's capacity to endure and in the end achieve. Perseverance.

And I offer you prayer. There is this thing I used to do as a little kid. I was probably around nine or ten years old. I’d go to my bathroom. I’d turn out the lights, wait for my eyes to adjust to the dark. I’d stare in the mirror and ask myself what I first thought was a simple question: Who am I? My name would naturally pop up in my mind, then I’d think, no, you're not your name. Who am I? I’d just stand there in the dark with the door locked staring at myself, examining my face, trying to unlock something that was inside and even as a young boy, I could feel that I was both more and less than my own physical body. Who am I? Who am I? I’d do this for ten or fifteen minutes just trying to peel back, to peel away all the layers of identity that I took for granted as being what actually was, removing the skin until I felt unarmed, naked but confident and so assure of an interior presence. And I really can't tell you why I did this. Perhaps I was just curious, but I can say it was my first conscious contact with my spirit, the engine of my instincts and intuition, the shadow body whose flesh is action deeds and intention. We are simply the culmination of our actions and the seeds of our actions are our thoughts. We have a responsibility to our spirit and I feed and clothe mine through prayer and meditation, cultivating a relationship with the divine source of guidance, the majestic dance of call and response, opening the pathway of communication with that which is infinitely greater has allowed me to witness the mountains move in my life and the seas part, because I dared to ask and I have received through patience, perseverance, and prayer.

This is my offering to you: You have the capacity to leave a lasting impact and indelible impression upon this world as evidenced by this day, your right of passage. Claim the sacred spaces of your minds; nurture and cultivate a vision of fulfillment; and move toward that destiny with patience, perseverance, and prayer. Class of 2016—Congratulations. Thank you.