CENTRAL FALLS â€” Although her current Hollywood lifestyle is a far cry from the hardscrabble neighborhood where she grew up, Viola Davis credits this place and its people with making her the highly successful actor that she is today. â€śCentral Falls makes up in heart what it lacks in size,â€ť she told an auditorium filled with graduating seniors and alumni at Central Falls High School on Thursday, prompting an eruption of applause.
On the aptly titled â€śWarriors' Pride Day,â€ť the city that has experienced more than its share of hard knocks and criticisms over the past few years was spoken of with respect, reverence, and what sounded almost like love by Davis, a 1983 graduate of Central Falls High. In Rhode Island this week for a whirlwind schedule of public events and to visit her family, Davis made time to speak with the young men and women who will be graduating from her alma mater on June 8 and offered some heartfelt advice.
Referring to the city's financial difficulties, school staffing issues, high poverty and other factors that contribute to negative press, Davis said, â€śI know the obstacles of growing up in Central Falls.â€ť At the same time, she said the city's problems are nothing compared to some of the larger issues the students will experience once they get out into the world. Living in the square mile city, she said, gave them the tools they need to survive.
Davis told the students that Central Falls was a far less ethnically diverse place back in the 1970s when she and her five siblings and their parents resided there as one of the few African American families. â€śMy sisters and I spent a whole lot of time fighting,â€ť she recalled.
Davis recounted a time in elementary school when a neighborhood boy, reputed to be the fastest runner in Central Falls, called her â€śthe N-wordâ€ť and she responded by challenging him to a race.
She said, however, that after issuing the challenge, she realized her limitations: the outgrown shoes she was wearing were too tight and she had holes in her socks.
However, Davis said she did â€śthe only thing a self-respecting girl should have done..I took my shoes off.â€ť Running on cold pavement, she and the fastest boy finished â€śin a dead heat.â€ť Davis added that this episode â€śspeaks to what life is about. You've got to be in the race. Win or lose, they're just asking you to be in the race.â€ť
Along the same lines, Davis, who was named this year as one of Time magazine's 100 Most Influential People, said she thinks that young people are not taught enough about failure. They teach you about success but they don't teach you about â€śthe bumps in the road,â€ť she told the students. â€śThey don't teach you how to pick yourself up and to dust yourself off and how these bumps are going to make the next bumps a little bit easier.â€ť
As part of the Warriors' Pride Day, Davis was inducted into Central Falls High School's Alumni Hall of Fame. Her sister, Deloris Grant, a 1982 Central Falls High graduate who is also an English and drama teacher at the school, was inducted into the Thespian Society and welcomed into the school's Alumni Association, along with 19 others. In the audience was Davis' mother, Mary Alice, and her husband, actor Julius Tennon.
As part of the festivities, students in the Central Falls High School dance program performed, and the class of 2012 presented Davis with a signed copy of their yearbook.
In addition to Davis, also welcomed into the Alumni Association were: Kathy Bradshaw, Donald Labossiere, Doris White, Patricia Martinez, Barbara Santaniello, Vilma Cumplido, Ann Marie Pise, Lynn Almstrom, Sue Gaboriault, Caroline Lizotte, Kevin England, Donna England, Alicia Pinto, Tina Plante Jancef, David Upegui, Marcela Garces, Manny Silva, Karina Pelaez, and Richard Mendoza.
Sitting in the audience was Waleed Muhammad, a musician and songwriter from Johnston, who had read about Davis visiting the high school. He said he had acted alongside the Oscar-nominated and Tony Award-winning actor in a play, â€śVoices,â€ť back in 1984 at the Elmwood Community Center. Muhammad had with him a small book that had been given to each cast member so they could record their experiences.
Still in high school at the time, Davis had signed Muhammad's cast diary with, â€śThanks for the memories, Love, Viola,â€ť and had drawn a star to dot the letter â€śIâ€ť in her name. â€śIsn't that something. That was over 30 years ago,â€ť mused Muhammad. â€śI'm going to ask her to autograph it again.â€ť