In the 32 years Cicely Tyson has lived in the same New York City apartment building, none of her neighbors have paid her much attention or even seemed to know she was there.
Not anymore, says the actress, as she sits in a Beverly Wilshire Hotel suite, red-carpet chic in a lavender satin sheath and black-and-white snakeskin heels, her only embellishment a simple gold cross dangling around her neck.
“I’d just go in and out,” she says with an infectious laugh. “But all of a sudden, people in my building started sending me beautiful notes and flowers. I’m no longer a secret.”
The word finally got out, it seems, with the revival of Horton Foote’s classic, The Trip to Bountiful, which opened on Broadway in April 2013 and ran for more than six months.
Tyson’s triumphant performance earned her a Drama Desk Award, Outer Critics Award and her first Tony Award for best actress in a play — it even drew First Lady Michelle Obama, who brought daughters Malia and Sasha to the must-see show.
Michael Wilson, a longtime Foote aficionado, directed Tyson in the role of Mother Carrie Watts, an elderly woman desperate to escape her suffocating existence in the Houston flat of her weak-willed son, Ludie, and his bossy wife, Jessie Mae, to return to her vanished past in the rural Texas town of Bountiful.
Wilson calls it “a huge part. It’s like the American King Lear for a woman in the 20th century theater.”
Now he and the actress have brought the drama full circle: the play originally premiered on television in a 1953 NBC broadcast starring Lillian Gish, who took it to Broadway later that year. In 1985 it was adapted for film starring Geraldine Page, who won an Oscar for her lively performance. Nine years ago, it was produced off-Broadway with Lois Smith in the lead.
In the Broadway production last year, Tyson headed a largely, though not exclusively, African-American cast. Since the play is more about the changing landscape of home and family than race or social issues, it has a universal appeal that works regardless of skin color.
In fact, when Tyson’s Mother Watts would belt out the old Protestant hymn “Blessed Assurance,” the live audience was often moved to sing along with her — without any prompting — turning the theater into their communal church.
This past March, Tyson returned The Trip to Bountiful to its TV roots with a Lifetime production costarring Vanessa Williams (also from the Broadway cast) as Jessie Mae, with new additions Blair Underwood as Ludie, Keke Palmer as Thelma, a young woman Mother Watts befriends in a bus station, and Clancy Brown as a kindly sheriff.
She can currently be seen performing the show through November at Los Angeles’ Ahmanson Theatre, continuing the play’s journey — and her own.
In her hotel suite, Tyson tells her own story with the same intimacy she brings to a performance. With a hushed voice, she lures her listener in close, carefully choosing her words and meticulously pronouncing each syllable.
She talks of growing up in New York (“born and bred,” she says), being discovered by a fashion editor at Ebony and becoming a model, her early TV roles in ‘60s-era series like East Side, West Side and The Courtship of Eddie’s Father — deciding from the start that she’d rather not work than play hookers or mammys.
In the 1970s the attention widened: her performance in Sounder (1972) brought an Oscar nomination, and the landmark TV movie The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974) brought two Emmy wins — one for outstanding lead actress in a dramatic movie or miniseries (making her the first African-American actress to win in this category) and one for actress of the year.
A nine-time nominee, she would win a third Emmy 20 years later, for outstanding supporting actress in a miniseries or special for Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. This year, she received an Emmy nod for The Trip to Bountiful.
Tyson also realized early on that good acting takes more than instinct — it requires study. She walked away from one movie role because, she recalls, “I had no foundation. I wanted to know from the bottom up.” So she turned to noted teachers such as Lee Strasberg and Mira Rostova. “I still study — I would never think of doing anything without studying.”
And when she describes the forces that shaped her fierce sense of pride and determination, she could be speaking lines from one of Foote’s plays. The daughter of immigrants from the West Indies, she grew up in Harlem, where her mother worked as a domestic and her father was a carpenter and painter.
“I was brought up in the church — literally,” she says. ”We were there Sunday afternoons, Monday evenings, Tuesday evenings, Wednesday…. We were always doing something in the church. And we were not permitted to go to the movies. I remember my mother taking me to the movies once. It was a scary movie and I didn’t care if I never went back again.”
She refers to her mother as “my source of energy.” Not necessarily for all the right reasons. When Tyson decided to become an actress, her mother was disapproving. “She just knew I was going to live in the den of iniquity.” Yet she decided to pursue her goal anyway.
Where did she acquire such confidence? “I don’t think it was confidence,” she says quietly. “It was the determination to prove my mother wrong.
When I got the Emmy for Jane Pittman, I was in L.A. and she was in New York. I called her the next morning and said, ‘Well?’ And she said, ‘Well, what?’ I said, ‘You better tell me something.’ She said, ‘My dear, I am so proud of you.’ And I think if I didn’t hear those words from her, none of it would have meant anything.”
Memories and regrets, dashed dreams and renewed hope — these are things Tyson understands, and they are at the heart of Bountiful.
She remembers when she first stumbled on the story in 1985. She was living in Los Angeles, married at the time to jazz great Miles Davis. One day, she passed a movie theater and saw a film was playing starring Geraldine Page.
“I’ve always been an avid fan of hers. So I went in and saw it and was so incredibly moved. I left there and wrote to my agent and said, ‘You get me my Trip to Bountiful and then I’ll retire.’
She pauses to reflect. “I’ve been so lucky. I really have. I’ve gotten such incredible roles that I could really sink my teeth into and enjoy. I wanted one more role before I left. [My agent] didn’t pay any attention, but I’d go into his office every so often and say, ‘Where’s my Trip to Bountiful?’”
The story picks up in New York in 2011: “One day I heard that Van Broughton Ramsey, a costume designer I had worked with [who hails from the same part of Texas as Foote and designed the costumes for the Lifetime movie], was looking for me.
"I called him, and he took me to the theater and introduced me to a woman who was getting ready to produce a play of her father’s with a black cast. [She said that] her father had so much respect for me that she was sure he wouldn’t want anyone else to do it.
“I said, ‘Who was your father?’ She said, ‘Horton Foote.’ I said, ‘And what is the play?’ She said, ‘The Trip to Bountiful.’ I said, ‘This cannot be.’ I’m thinking to myself, ‘This isn’t real. I had said this 26 years before to my agent, who totally ignored me.’ And here it comes out of the blue.”
The woman she speaks of is Hallie Foote, an executive producer of the Broadway revival as well as the Lifetime film, as is Jeffrey M. Hayes. Bill Haber and Tyson are also exec producers on the Lifetime telefilm. Shortly after, Hallie Foote and Michael Wilson sat down with Tyson at the Carlyle Hotel to gauge her interest in the play.
“Her passion for it was immediately clear,” says the director, who was just as eager to work with her. “She was the very first name out of my mouth when Hallie and I were first talking about the play being applied to an African- American family. I basically said, ‘If Cicely Tyson were playing Mother Carrie Watts, this would make sense.’”
His impulse was right. From the time Tyson got involved in the production, she began doing what she always does with a role. “I read the script 999 times,” she says, “because I don’t think you can get to know anybody unless you know all about them.” She continued rereading the play throughout the show’s run.
“She is a force of nature,” Wilson says. “She is a woman of immense discipline and rigor. She has an intense and lively imagination that feeds her ability to transform into these characters both on stage and screen. I find her performances are transporting to audiences because she transports herself — it’s such a thorough morphing of herself into the world of her character that she carries us with her.”
His Broadway experience with her, he says, was like “preparing a great athlete for this huge run. I think she felt that what Mother Watts had to say was important to be told, and it reflected things that she wanted communicated. She was absolutely relentless and she wanted me to be relentless with her. That’s the only way we were going to work well together.”
It was during the tail end of the Broadway run that she found out the play would be produced for television. Her first reaction: “What’re you talking about? The movie’s already been done.’” Her second reaction: she started rereading the script, knowing that the change in mediums would inevitably color her performance.
“The live audience determines so much,” she says. “I was really fearful of doing the movie because I know how different the interpretation can be. There’s also the need for broad expressions in the theater, vocally and physically, and on film, it’s lost.”
Knowing that Wilson would be directing her in the Lifetime version offered some reassurance.
“When I’m finished with a piece I [usually] cut it off,” she says. “It was very difficult to do that with Mother Watts. Primarily because we were going to do the movie. I kept saying, ‘Hurry up, because I’m going to lose her. If you wait another two weeks, she’ll be gone.’ But that didn’t happen. I became fascinated with the things that were going on with me in this new medium.
“For instance, there was a scene of a bus going crosstown, and I was coming from the market with a wagon. There’re some children running around me and I get really shaken. That was not in the play. This was a new reality because we see the neighborhood. I had to make an adjustment to that moment. It’s fascinating.”
Blair Underwood has worked with the actress several times before — in the 1990 TV movie Heat Wave (he played her grandson), the 1998 TV movie Mama Flora’s Family (he played her son) and in Tyler Perry’s 2006 comedy, Madea’s Family Reunion. Not surprisingly, he doesn’t see her slowing down anytime soon.
“I think she’s more spry, more energized and more alive than ever,” he says. “She’s a phenomenon. She reads voraciously. I remember one morning I said, ‘How was your weekend?’ And she said, ‘Well, I spent eight hours at the Apple store.’ She loves gadgets. Her mind is always engaged. She’s sharp. She doesn’t miss a beat.”
Case in point: last fall, Tyson tweeted — yes, she’s active on Twitter — “Gandhi said, ‘Each step upward makes me feel stronger and fit for the next.’ Age is just a number. Feeling great and inspired.”
The 80-year-old continues to defy age and expectations. Three years ago, Tyson appeared in her first music video, for the Willow Smith hit, “21st Century Girl.”
And as a producer on the Lifetime production of Bountiful, she was able to showcase the choir from the Cicely L. Tyson Community School of Performing and Fine Arts, a magnet school she supports in East Orange, New Jersey, which serves one of the state’s most economically challenged African-American communities.
While Tyson finds the telefilm version of Bountiful richer and fuller than the stage production, she says it’s also “much sadder, much lonelier, much deeper.” Especially in the final scene.
“I was really disturbed when [Mother Watts] said the last goodbye to the house [in Bountiful] and walked away.” On stage, this scene had filled her with hope as Ludie mans up, finally confronting both his wife and mother. The old house becomes secondary.
“It’s a moment of triumph, that he would take charge of his life. And I turn and look at that house and know that I can’t ever live there again. But I have [something] that will allow me to go on.” In the movie, the dilapidated house is more real and her hope less palpable, which, Tyson says, “made it much more painful and difficult to say goodbye.”
She’s taking another crack at Carrie Watts for the play’s run in Los Angeles and she’s wasting no time. “I’ve started to read the script again,” she says.
Yet, as anyone who works with her knows, Tyson loves a challenge. Which is why she never watches her movies once they’re done. “The gratification for me comes in the doing of it,” she says. Even when the cast attended a special screening of Bountiful hosted by Mrs. Obama at the White House in February, she remained backstage.
While Tyson appreciates the hoopla, she’s just happy to have found her Bountiful. “This last year has been absolutely phenomenal,” she says with consummate grace. “I know, and I let Him or Her know, how blessed I have been throughout my whole career. And I never fail to give thanks.”
Original story published in emmy magazine no. 05-2014.
Mekeisha Madden Toby contributed to this story for TelevisionAcademy.com.