RIC community rooting for Viola Davis ’88 on Oscar Sunday  

With the Academy Awards show fast approaching, the Rhode Island College community is cheering on alum Viola Davis, who was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for her performance in “The Help.”

Davis, a 1988 RIC Theatre grad, received an honorary Doctorate in Fine Arts from the college in 2002.

From right, P. William Hutchinson, Viola Davis and their spouses, Jeri McElroy and Julius Tennon.
One of Davis’ biggest RIC boosters is P. William Hutchinson, professor emeritus of theatre, who taught Davis acting and has continued to be a mentor to her over the years.

Hutchinson knew from the start that Davis was special. “It was evident from my first contact with her in these scene classes that Viola had the ‘spark,’ the ‘intuition’ of a true actor – that inner something which bursts from the stage and helps the audience to know that they are witnessing an honest and believable character,” he said.

Hutchinson was certain that Davis had the talent to be a successful actor if she worked hard, especially on the physical aspects of characterization, and persevered. He encouraged her to keep a journal of her dreams, her observations of the world around her and her experiences.

“I urged her to dig deeply and imaginatively into the biography and background of the characters she was asked to play,” Hutchinson said. “I'm certain there have been many teachers and mentors through the years that have encouraged Viola along these lines, but what a satisfaction it is to hear her now describe her method of building a character in this way.”

During the filming of “The Help,” Davis contacted Hutchinson for advice. He encouraged her to continue to work with the director on using "voiceovers" of Abilene's thoughts throughout the film. He also sent her a novel about Mississippi in the 1960s as well as an article he had written about his experiences there during that time period.

This is Davis’ second time up for an Oscar, following her supporting actress nomination for 2008’s “Doubt.”

On Jan. 29, Davis received the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role for her work in “The Help.”

In December, she was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama, an award won in January by Meryl Streep, star of “The Iron Lady.”

Most recently Davis won awards for her work in “The Help” at the Critics Choice Awards, for Best Actress and Best Ensemble.

In addition to being an alum of RIC, Davis was also enrolled in Upward Bound at the college. The federally funded program gives low-income students the skills needed to complete high school and to enter and graduate from college. She has credited Upward Bound for contributing to her success, and supports the organization as a speaker and cofounder of an endowment fund.

Davis won Tony Awards for “King Hedley II” (2001) and “Fences” (2010), and received a Drama Desk Award for “King Hedley II,” an Obie for “Everybody’s Ruby” (1999), and a Drama Desk and Obie for “Intimate Apparel” (2004).

In 2008, playing opposite Meryl Streep in ”Doubt,” she earned nominations for the Academy Award, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild.

In her first major theatre role, in the 1994-95 production of August Wilson’s “Seven Guitars,” she was nominated for the Tony Award and won the Outer Critics Circle Award.

According to Hutchinson, who has seen almost all of Davis' performances, what has remained constant in her work – even dating back to RIC – “is the honesty, truthfulness and believability of the characters she has played.”

The 84th Academy Awards will be handed out on Sunday, Feb. 26, at 8:30 p.m.