Viola Davis, Anna Paquin and Rutina Wesley were among the celebrities who trekked to the far south Chicago suburb of Harvey on Saturday, to celebrate the life and legacy of fellow actor Nelsan Ellis, who died July 8.
It was a decidedly spirit-filled service at the decidedly C.O.G.I.C. church that Ellis grew up in, where family members and pastoral staff knew him as Leon. With gut-wrenching praise and worship offered by VaShawn Mitchell, Caleb Minter and Tiff Joy, the 200 or so attendees were treated to an uplifting sermon that ended with the pastor of the Holy Temple Church of God in Christ reminding all of the power of intercessory prayer and mindfulness. Resolutions from Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner and U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth were announced, as were words sent from Barack and Michelle Obama.
Said the Obamas: “Nelsan will live on through the beauty of the art he created.”
But perhaps one of the most touching moments of the program was when Queen Sugar star Wesley, who attended Julliard School with Ellis and also co-starred with Ellis and Paquin in the acclaimed HBO series True Blood, got up to sing. That is, sang. Prior to her song, Wesley described Ellis as “an arteest, like none we have seen before.” She also spoke directly to Ellis, adding “how I love thee, fiercely. Stand tall, my friend. Rest. Peace has finally found you.”
Viola Davis and husband Julius Tennon got up to pay tribute as well,
“He was like my baby,” said Davis, who joked that whenever he came around, she “fed him.” Adding, “When I saw he was sick, I begged him to get better.”
Ellis died due to alcohol withdrawal, according to his father. He is survived by his son Breon, who sat next to Wesley and Davis during the service and by a host of family. Ellis spent most of his childhood in the Chicago area —with some time in Alabama— before going to Juilliard in New York City.
Sources say that a separate memorial will be held in Hollywood at a later time. Meanwhile, HBO sent a statement that was printed in the program. In part, it read “Nelson was a long time member of the HBO family whose groundbreaking portrayal of Lafayette will be remembered fondly within the overall legacy of ‘True Blood.’ Nelsan will be dearly missed by his fans and all of us at HBO.”
The service was largely arranged by Ellis’ cousin, gospel star Mitchell. The 16-page full color program detailed the NAACP Image Award-winner’s work on True Blood, The Help, Get On Up, True To the Game and Elementary.
Those close to Ellis are working on creating a foundation that can accept donations on Breon’s behalf and they ask donators to please wait to send money until further notice.
Adrienne Samuels Gibbs is a Chicago-based writer.