Sunday, February 22, 2009

Oscar Nominee Viola Davis’ Path From Poverty In Central Falls to Hollywood

Oscar nominee Viola Davis' grew up in poverty in Central Falls, Rhode Island and is now making a name for herself in Hollywood. Central Falls is just 1.29 square miles in size and as of the 2000 census was over 67% Hispanic. Unfortunately, 29% of the city lives below the poverty line, just like Davis did. Davis' Oscar nomination is for Best Supporting Actress for her part in the movie Doubt, via ProJo:

The walk Viola Davis will take down the red carpet Sunday night in Hollywood began decades ago, a few thousand miles from Hollywood, far away from the paparazzi and the privilege, the glitz and the glamour that now surround the Oscar nominee.

Even by Hollywood standards, hers is an improbable story. Davis overcame poverty and racism to reach the pinnacle of her acting profession. “I come from Central Falls,” Davis remarked years ago before winning a Tony Award. “I did not, growing up, ever, ever dream I could be in this place.” Others aren’t as incredulous. “We’re not completely shocked,” said Deloris Grant, Davis’ sister.

While Davis has spoken with the Journal many times over the years, in this past whirlwind week before the Oscars she did not. Davis declined interview requests. So we spoke with someone very close to the source, Grant, who along with her mother are attending tonight’s ceremony. She has followed and supported all of her sister’s developments and achievements. “I am her number one fan.” Grant is an English teacher and a theater instructor at Central Falls High School. This is where Davis’ rags-to-riches road began, in the neighborhood surrounding the school.

Her parents moved here in 1965. Davis, the second-youngest of six children, was just two months old. But her parents, neither of whom went beyond grade school, were poor and couldn’t afford to raise all their children. So the two oldest stayed behind in South Carolina, raised by grandparents for several years. Davis’ late father left school and home at 8 to become a horse groomer. That’s what eventually brought the family to Rhode Island: a job at Lincoln Downs and Narragansett Park. Davis’ mother, Mae Alice, left home at 13 to marry and to raise a family.

“Poverty is traumatic if you let it be,” Grant said. “Viola didn’t let it be.” In two former tenement houses in Central Falls, one on Washington Street, the other on Cowden Street, both of which have since been razed, Grant shared a room with her younger sister, and a bunk bed, too, although both slept on the top bunk. It was safer. “The rats would run across the bottom bed and go into the wall,” Grant said. “We could hear them in the attic chasing the pigeons.” “I used to fall asleep at night listening to the rats kill the pigeons,” Davis told the Journal in 2004. Dinner once, Grant recalls, was a jar of peanut butter. Take some. Pass it on. “We all had to share it. It was such a sad moment.”

The Davis family was one of the first black families in Central Falls and the first in their neighborhood. Davis remembers racism, sometimes from surprising sources. On a couple of occasions the Davis girls attended Christmas and Easter services at a Catholic church, until a priest asked them to leave. The girls weren’t Catholic and weren’t with their parents. But Grant suspects there was more to it than that. “They didn’t want us in there. We were black.”

Six was the turning point in Davis’ life. Her sister Dianne, who was being raised by grandparents in South Carolina, moved in with the family in Central Falls, did not like what she saw, and would not accept it. “She was so driven, it was supernatural,” Davis said in 2004. “She instilled a ferocious passion for fulfilling our dreams.” Dianne told her sisters that they’d go to college, which was bold. No one in the family had even gone to high school.

That same year, Davis saw Cicely Tyson in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pitman. And her mind was made up: She was going to be an actress, and promptly pursued her career. That summer, the town conducted a talent show at Jenks Park, just around the corner from where the family lived. “I wanted to be like all the little white girls who won the Miss Central Falls Recreation Contest, who took acrobat lessons at Theresa Landry’s,” Davis said recently on The Tonight Show. “I said I’m going to beat them. I’m going to get that damn prize.” First Davis went to the Salvation Army and bought a second-hand green bikini for her performance. And she selected a song to sing, “Abracadabra” by the DeFranco Family. When the contest came, Davis stood on stage in the big bandstand under its enormous umbrella-shaped copper roof, and she looked out at the crowd and spotted several African-Americans and a few other minorities rooting for her. “All the misfits of the town were like, ‘Do it for us Viola! Do it for us!’” But Davis didn’t do it. She opened her mouth and not a sound came out. “I wet my pants.”

But a month later, she was back at it. She joined three of her sisters in the park for a recreation department theater competition. The Davis girls, who created a skit based on 1970s TV characters, won the competition. And Davis remembers how performing well made her feel. “I felt I had discovered a gold mine.” So Davis continued prospecting. In fifth grade, she played the part of a master of ceremonies before the entire school, including Grant. “I remember thinking at the time, ‘Wow, she’s kind of good.’”

In high school, Davis recited Langston Hughes’ poem “Mother to Son” to her English class. That, according to Grant, is when Viola realized she was good. Grant and Davis performed together in a high school play called Noodle Doodle Box, where both acted from inside a big cardboard box. Rehearsals were hard since they had to share the stage with another group performing some other production. “They would deride us when we came out with our box,” Grant says. “They thought they were better than us because they were doing West Side Story.”

It has been more than 20 years since Robin Yates, retired English department chairman at Central Falls High School, had Davis as a student, but he remembers her “vividly.” “She was clearly a standout talent. It was innate. She had an ability to reach so deep inside herself to an emotion and convey that through her character.” Yates, who now lives in Hudson, Fla., was the school’s drama coach. He remembers Davis in a student production of a play called Runaways and another called Wings, when she “really brought the house down.”

More recently, Yates remembers seeing Davis’ scene in Doubt, feeling “blown away, but not surprised that she could do that. You could see that ability was there in high school.” You could also see a good-natured person with a great sense of humor, who was surprisingly shy in English class. “Give her a part and put her on stage and you couldn’t pull her off. But ask her to talk in class, she hated it.”

While at Central Falls High School, Davis enrolled in Upward Bound, a federally funded program to provide educational support to low-income students. “The first time I met her, I was impressed with her determination, her focus and her sense of honor and her genuine spirit,” says Mariam Boyajian, director of Rhode Island Upward Bound. “She is a remarkable person.” Davis and Grant set up an endowment for the Upward Bound program. And Davis often credits the program for contributing to her success. “I’m proof positive of how social programs can totally transform your life,” Davis said in December on the TV show The View.

Davis occasionally returns to Rhode Island. Her mother still lives in Central Falls, as do her sister Anita and brother John. Her sister Danielle lives in Pawtucket; Deloris lives in Lincoln, and Dianne lives outside Washington, D.C. Sometimes when Davis visits, she talks to students at Central Falls High School and gives them what they need: encouragement.“When I look at them, I think they’re great. They just don’t see the greatness in themselves.”

After graduating from Central Falls High School, Davis studied theater at Rhode Island College, where she was the only black student in the department. Then she worked for a time at Trinity Rep before studying theater at the Juilliard School, in New York, her tuition paid by the Rhode Island Foundation. There, in acting’s most competitive market, Davis struggled. She ate Spam and lived in a tiny apartment, which she shared with rats. “I told her I’m not going in that apartment,” Grant says. “I have a serious fear of rats because of my childhood.”

Viola Davis remembers that childhood, too. But now the 43-year-old has an Obie, a Tony and a Drama Desk Award and a chance tonight of receiving an Oscar. She lives with her husband and two children in Los Angeles. “I may live in Los Angeles,” Davis told The Journal last December. “But when someone asks, I still say I live in Central Falls.”

1 comment:

  1. wow this is a remarkable story. In a small town like this, I could never believe something like this would happen.