From Harlem to ‘Bountiful,’ Cicely Tyson tills the soil for many

24 May

triptobountiful1I hope I can remember where I put my keys when I’m her age, I thought as I watched Cicely Tyson perform the other night. Forget remembering all of my lines in a Broadway play.

Tyson is the central character in The Trip to Bountiful, which is currently playing at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre. It’s not that I’m surprised that Tyson is amazing. I’m just appreciative of her longevity, her beauty and her tenacity.

Wikipedia has Tyson born in December of 1933, which would make her 79. The New York Times puts her at 88.

During the performance I kept thinking how Tyson had paved the way for the success of other members of the Bountiful revival cast, which includes Vanessa L. Williams, Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Condola Rashad.

I admit, there were times when, even with a few tweaks to the set, (There’s a sign in the bus station that points to a “Whites Only” waiting room.) I was hyper-aware of the fact that a black family’s experience in Jim Crow Texas might have been a little different from the one playing out on the stage.

According to the Times, it was Hallie Foote, daughter of playwright Horton Foote, who wanted to do the play with an African American cast. She’d long envisioned Tyson in the role of Carrie Watts. For her part, Tyson said she’d always wanted to do the play. Human longing for home is universal, she said

“They just took down the house I lived in at 311 East 102nd Street,” she told the Times. “I used to walk by and feel like I could still see my mother in the window.”

Tyson’s parents, like my father, whose birthday would be today, immigrated from the West Indies and settled in Harlem. To say that her mother did not support her choice of career would be an understatement.

“My mother didn’t talk to me for two years,” Tyson said in an interview on CBS’ Sunday Morning.

But Tyson persisted, and she was judicious about the roles she accepted. She refused to take parts that did “nothing to enhance the race itself or women.”

Tyson won two Emmy Awards for her role in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman — one for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries and a special honor for Actress of the Year. She also got Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for her performance in Sounder.

Now she’s nominated for a Tony Award for Bountiful.

Whatever window her mother is watching from, I’m sure she is proud.

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