Award-winning actress and RIC alumna Viola Davis ’88
Viola Davis emerged victorious at the Academy Awards on Feb. 26, earning best supporting actress honors for her role in the film “Fences.’’ With the award win, Davis became the first African-American woman to win an Oscar, Tony and Emmy for her acting. [African-American actress Whoopi Goldberg has earned the same awards, but her Tony award was for production efforts.]
Those who have maintained ties to Davis since she graduated from RIC in 1988 are not surprised by her success.
“Her win is a proud moment and very exciting for RIC,’’ said Professor Emeritus of Theatre Bill Hutchinson, who taught Davis in two intermediate acting classes when Davis was an undergraduate. “It was obvious when she was on stage that she had an inner spirit and talent to go far. And she’s proven it.’’
He added that he believes Davis’ strongest asset is “her ability to analyze and dig into the biographies of different types of characters. She’s excellent at that and so versatile to have done it on stage, television and film.’’
RIC Associate Professor Emerita of Theatre, Music and Dance Elaine Foster Perry said she knew Davis was gifted from the moment she enrolled in Perry’s oral interpretation course.
“She was extremely grounded and focused,’’ Perry said. “We came across many students who wanted to be actors and actresses. However, I could see this was a calling for Viola. Of any student I’ve ever had, no one has concentrated more quickly or completely. If a scene needed tears, you had them in half a minute with her.’’
Perry said her primary objective was to stay out of Davis’ way. “I was worried about flubbing up all the natural resources within this young lady,’’ she said. “Her type of talent doesn’t come down the pike too often.’’
Perry was instrumental in working with Davis to write scripted material she could perform.
“At that time there were very few good roles for black actresses,’’ Perry recalled. “If there were roles, they were very stereotypical. So what we did was read the works of excellent black authors like Toni Morrison and Alice Walker and arrange their prose to be used as Viola’s audition material.’’
With Perry’s assistance, Davis created a one-woman show to complete requirements for an independent study course at RIC.
“It was phenomenal,’’ Perry said of the show. “By that time, she was an actress with great abilities. I’m sure she took material from that show to audition and gain acceptance to Juilliard.’’
In her Oscar acceptance speech, Davis expressed a desire to curate acting material from another place: the graveyard.
“People ask me all the time, ‘What kind of stories do you want to tell, Viola?,’’’ a visibly emotional Davis said. “I say exhume those bodies and stories of people who dreamed big but never saw those dreams to fruition or fell in love and lost. I became an artist because it’s a profession that celebrates what it means to live a life.’’
Mariam Boyajian, former director of the Upward Bound program at RIC, said Davis’ Oscar speech hit the mark.
“Her words were unbelievable and you can see how much she loves the craft of acting,’’ said Boyajian, who first met Davis in 1981, when the star was an 11th-grader at Central Falls High School.
Davis and her sister, Deloris Davis-Grant graduated from RIC through Upward Bound – a rigorous program that prepares first-generation and financially challenged students to complete high school and enter and graduate from college. In 1988 the Davis sisters established an Upward Bound scholarship fund, which now helps hundreds of Upward Bound students pay for college tuition and books.
Through the years, Boyajian said she’s most delighted that Davis is still as modest as the day she met her: “She’s real, and I love her for that.’’
Both Hutchinson and Perry agreed.
“Viola has always remained true to Rhode Island and Central Falls,’’ said Hutchinson, who paid a recent visit to Davis on the set of her popular show “How to Get Away with Murder.’’ “She doesn’t forget her friends back here, and it’s great to see how down-to-earth she is when she’s not performing.’’