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As Actress Viola Davis' Star Soars, Others Recall Upward Bound Beginnings

Viola Davis and Deloris Grant
Photo, courtesy Deloris Grant
Academy-Award nominee Viola Davis, left, sits next to her sister, veteran teacher Deloris Grant, right, on stage at Central Falls High School where Grant teaches both English and drama.

January 3, 2017

When internationally-acclaimed actress Viola Davis gains her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame Jan. 5, two special people will be among the many around the world cheering her on: Her older sister, Deloris Grant, and the sisters' earliest acting coach, Ron Stetson.The federal Upward Bound program links all three.

As teenagers, Deloris and Viola in 1979 enrolled together in the six-week intensive Upward Bound program at Rhode Island College. They did so during the one and only summer that Stetson worked in the college prep, student success program for those who are low-income or "first generation," meaning their parents did not obtain a college degree.

The job was "manna from heaven," Ron recalled during an interview in late December. Why? Besides allowing him to expose teenagers to the serious pursuit of theater, many for the first time, he joked, "I had to put gas in my car."

Ron, who has worked in theater for decades and who is a senior member of the acting staff at New York's Neighborhood Playhouse, admired Viola long before she had garnered two Academy Award nominations (for the movies "Doubt" and "The Help,") and decades before she won an Emmy (for her lead role in "How to Get Away With Murder"). He recalls a driven 14-year-old who was undaunted by his tough-love approach to teaching drama. Humble about the role he played in her life, Ron said, "I can't stress this enough: This is Viola's story, not mine."

Yet a scene worthy of a movie and published as part of a recent New Yorker profile of the actress took place in one of the first Upward Bound classes he taught. Ron asked his students to raise their hands if they wanted to become an actor. All hands went up. As he emphasized the difficulty of an acting career, the high unemployment rate, the rarity of career opportunity, let alone success, more and more hands came down until Viola's was the only one left.

"I liked her," Ron remembered. "I know myself well enough that I brought a lot of ego into that room. But she was a very determined kid. I mean, Viola was 14 years old! But she didn't back down; as Viola herself told the New Yorker, she was reaching for the ceiling."

Deloris, who teaches drama and English at Central Falls (R.I.) High School, the same school from which she and Viola graduated, remembers growing up poor in a family of one brother and five sisters. Yet the Upward Bound program was a bright spot for the whole family. When asked if she was enrolled in the student success program, she laughed and said, "Are you kidding me? The first year, I went to some classes with [older sisters] Diane and Anita," who were also enrolled in Upward Bound – at that time, the youngest sister, Danielle, was still too young to attend. (Ultimately, the five Davis sisters all obtained college degrees.)

Deloris said spending six summer weeks at Rhode Island College in classes with Viola drew the sisters closer together and was a galvanizing experience. "Our lives became intertwined," Deloris said. "Having six weeks away from home, developing my own sense of self, doing drama, attending classes, was like a big, huge present."

Yet the family struggled. When there was no food in the house, Deloris, Viola and their siblings sometimes would look through garbage for something to eat. Drama provided an escape, although the experience of going to bed hungry was something that neither of them would ever forget -- one reason why Viola is now the ambassador for Hunger Is, an effort that aims to end childhood hunger in America.

Ron said acting classes are almost always liberating experiences, especially for poor children. "Drama awakens your imagination and gives you permission to express yourself. It widens your understanding. It is like reading a great book," he said. "Sometimes, the only place you can escape to is your imagination, especially if you don't have money. You can't get in the car and take a vacation, after all," he said.

Despite poverty at home, the girls' educational life blossomed. Between Upward Bound classes every Saturday and attending high school, they were in school six days a week. "The teachers in Upward Bound were some of the best teachers I ever had. They were brilliant and compassionate. They treated me like I was such an intellectual, and I wasn't used to that. Previous to that experience I felt that others treated me differently because I was a black female," Deloris said. "Ron's classes liberated me as an artist. I realized, you know what, maybe I really am important. Maybe I really can do something great someday."

The Upward Bound experience made such an impact on Deloris and Viola that they decided they wanted to start a scholarship fund for Upward Bound students as soon as they graduated from Rhode Island College. To start the fund, she and Viola put on a one-woman show at the college in 1988, raising between $200 and $300. The beginnings were humble, but they were the start of something much bigger. Since that time, the fund they began, Rhode Island College's Upward Bound Scholarship Endowment Fund, has provided tens of thousands of dollars to help dozens of Upward Bound students pay for college tuition and books. After Viola was nominated for an Academy Award in 2012 for "The Help," fellow movie actress Meryl Streep, with whom Viola co-starred in "Doubt," donated $10,000 to the fund. Ms. Streep will also speak during the sidewalk ceremony to unveil Viola's star.

For her part, Deloris never wanted to become an actor, but she is passionate about conveying the acting craft in the teaching job she loves and has held for 21 years, complete with her own innovations, such as condensing "MacBeth" into a one-hour play for students. "Acting builds self-confidence and helps you communicate all the feelings you have inside. I tell students that the stage is a safe place to bring out those emotions," she said. Viola regularly comes to Central Falls to help teach her sister's drama students and last year Kelsey Scott, who appeared in "Twelve Years a Slave," also helped coach, Deloris said.

"Viola is always asking me, 'are any of the kids hungry? Do they need food?' She has given so much to the students at my high school. People have no idea," Deloris said.

Deloris will be on the Hollywood sidewalk beside Viola as her sister's terrazzo and brass star is imbedded in cement to shine through the ages along with the leading lights of film.

As for Ron, he remains humbled and a little amazed at the role he played in sparking interest in a 14-year-old Upward Bound student who has become one of the world's leading actresses. "The arts empower people," he said. "Somewhere along the line, someone said 'Yes,' to Viola."

And so did Upward Bound.