LINCOLN — A lunch of Del's Lemonade, chowder and clamcakes, hot wieners and Autocrat coffee milk already had guests smiling, and when Viola Davis took to the stage, it was a celebration of yet another classic product of Rhode Island.
The award-winning actress was in her home state on Wednesday to attend the 28th annual Rhode Island Tourism Unity Luncheon at the Twin River Event Center. Davis spoke at the event, and received the Rhode Island “Making a Difference” Award for her contribution to art and culture tourism in the state.
Dressed in a black velvet blazer and halter top, Davis graciously thanked Rhode Island Tourism for her award, adding, “I'm very proud to be here.” She said she is frequently asked about why she continues to come back to Rhode Island and why she gives back to her hometown of Central Falls. Her answer, she said, come from the saying that “the two most important days of your life are the day you are born and the day you figure out why you were born.” Added the 47-year-old actress, “I'm at the point in my life where I feel like I've finally 'gotten it.' I want to be an instrument of change.”
Davis said that being black while growing up in mostly-white Central Falls in the 1960s and ‘70s, she felt stigmatized and was often the target of bullying. During a time when she was about 8-years-old, Davis recalled being constantly chased by a group of boys who taunted her. After a beating one day, her mother gave her a crochet hook and told her stop running and walk. If she was attacked, she was instructed to use the crochet hook to defend herself.
Davis said she took her mother's advice and the next day, she didn't run. She walked slowly and confronted her tormenters—something that proved to be a turning point. “I stopped running from my fears and began to walk into who I was,” she said. “My message to give to a child—especially a child in Central Falls, is to stop running...from the stigma, a bad reputation, and start embracing what is beautiful about you.”
Davis added, however, that while she intends to continue to give back, she can't do it alone, and implored others to also “make a difference in the life of a child.”
Davis, whose husband, actor Julius Tennon, and mother, Mary Davis, were in the audience, touched briefly on her next project, a film that will be shot in Hong Kong. “It's a movie where I have to run, and I have bad knees!” she joked. She concluded by telling the tourism luncheon guests, “I carry you with me around the world. I always say I'm from Rhode Island.”
Mark Brodeur, director of tourism, said he was thrilled that Davis, who grew up in Central Falls and graduated from Rhode Island College, could attend the tourism luncheon and accept the award in person. He said she was chosen because “her continued support of the fine arts and culture that thrive in Rhode Island continues to drive awareness of this great asset and helps the tourism industry grow.”
Governor Lincoln Chafee read off Davis' numerous professional achievements, which include two Tony Awards, an Academy Award nomination, and Golden Globe nomination, an induction into the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and being listed as one of Time Magazine's 100 Most Influential People in the World. He also noted that she is slated to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Regional Tourism Awards were also presented at the event. Bob Billington, president of the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council, gave the Blackstone Valley Award to the Town of Burrillville for its vision to improve the library, parks, housing, bikeways and farmers’ markets in town.
Also, RI Blueways Treasurer Meg Kerr received the South County Award, Discover Newport honored Roger Williams University; Fraser and Betty Lang, owners of The Block Island Times, received the Block Island Tourism Council's award; and AS220 won the tourism award for the Providence region.
Brodeur spoke of the importance of tourism to Rhode Island's economic development and his recent taxpayer-funded trip to China to promote Rhode Island tourism there. He said there is a burgeoning interest among the fast-growing, new Chinese “middle class” in visiting places like Newport and Providence that offer old-world architecture and charm coupled with fresh, local food, and particularly seafood. “China is a golden egg, and they're going to be going to Rhode Island,” he noted.