Cicely Tyson 1924(?)–
In a career spanning more than five decades on the stage and screen, actress Cicely Tyson has earned a reputation for exploring the diversity of the African-American experience, insisting on roles that eschew one-dimensional, stereotypical depictions of black characters. She began her career on the stage, appearing in plays on and off Broadway during the 1950s and 1960s. She first earned acclaim, and an Academy Award nomination, for her starring role in the 1972 film Sounder, regarded as one of the first Hollywood movies to portray the dignity and strength of African Americans. In that film, and in works such as The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974), Roots (1977), and The Women of Brewster Place (1989), Tyson became known for representing strong, beautiful black women characters. Because of her discriminating standards in selecting scripts, Tyson has not been a prolific actress, but the quality of her work has assured Tyson of a reputation as one of the country's finest dramatic performers. In 2013 Tyson returned to the stage for the first time in 30 years, turning in a Tony Award–winning performance in the Horton Foote play The Trip to Bountiful.
Cicely Tyson was born in 1924 (some sources give her birth date as 1933) in East Harlem, New York, to parents who emigrated from Nevis, a small island in the Caribbean Leeward Island chain. The move to the United States brought no prosperity for the Tyson family, however. Tyson's father worked at carpentry, house painting, and whatever other odd jobs he could find, while her mother worked as a housekeeper. Tyson helped support the family, too, selling shopping bags on street corners to supplement the household income.
The Tysons relied on welfare to survive, and the actress remembered that more often than not, they ate corn meal mush for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Her mother sought to protect Tyson and her two siblings from the harshness of their environment by keeping them in church as much as possible and forbidding them to associate with neighborhood children. However, Tyson loved to wander the city and explore its many possibilities, and during her youth she frequently hopped onto a bus or subway train and rode it to the end of the line, just to see what was there.
Began Career in Modeling
After graduating from Charles Evans Hughes High School in Manhattan, Tyson landed a job as a secretary for the American Red Cross. The monotony of the work soon frustrated her, however, and she told Louie Robinson of Ebony that one day she stood up and shouted to her coworkers, “I know that God did not put me on the face of this earth to bang on a typewriter for the rest of my life!” Fate intervened a few days later. Tyson was asked by her hairdresser to model one of his styles at a fashion show. Her striking presence prompted several onlookers to encourage her to look into a modeling career. Before long she was enrolled at the Barbara Watson Modeling School and was doing photo shoots during her lunch breaks from the Red Cross.
She quickly became one of the top black models in the country, and it was not long before she left office work behind. She earned as much as $65 an hour—a considerable sum during the late 1950s—and graced the covers of such magazines as Ebony and Jet. However, for all her success, modeling brought Tyson little satisfaction. “I felt like a machine,” she told a reporter for Time magazine.
Once again fate stepped in. Tyson was waiting in the offices of Ebony magazine for an appointment with fashion editor Freda DeKnight when she caught the eye of Evelyn Davis, a black actress. Tyson related the encounter to Ms. magazine: “When I walked by, [Davis] took one look at me and said, ‘Lord, what a face!’ She said I'd be perfect for a movie then in production called The Spectrum. It was about the problems between light-skinned and dark-skinned blacks. I auditioned for the part, and I got it. Actually, the film was never released because the money ran out—but here I am.”
Tyson's decision to take up acting precipitated to a two-year rift between her and her mother, who considered movies sinful and had always forbidden her children to see them. With her characteristic determination, Tyson ignored her mother's opposition and pursued her goal. She studied briefly at New York University, where she worked with the legendary directors Lloyd Richards and Vinnette Carroll. Carroll recalled in Ms., “There was never any doubt in my mind that Miss Cicely—that's my pet name for her—was going to make it. She had all the qualities needed: an enormous capacity for work (she seemed utterly driven) and for criticism (she was never thrown by it or immobilized). The most noticeable thing about her was her sense of herself. She was her own measuring stick. And she didn't look to the left or the right or talk about how unfair it was for blacks in the arts.”
Performed on New York Stage
In 1959 Tyson appeared in Carroll's Off-Broadway revival of the musical The Dark of the Moon and in a Broadway variety show called Talent'59; she also understudied for Eartha Kitt in the role of Jolly Rivers in Jolly's Progress. In 1961 Tyson was one of the original cast members of the Off-Broadway production of Jean Genet's controversial drama The Blacks. She was in good company: that cast also included James Earl Jones, Maya Angelou, Lou Gossett Jr., Godfrey Cambridge, and Raymond St. Jacques. Tyson played a prostitute named Virtue, and her performance won her a Vernon Rice Award in 1962. Her other New York theater work included The Cool World, Trumpets of Page 145 | Top of Articlethe Lord, Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright, The Blue Boy in Black, and Carry Me Back to Morningside Heights. She was willing to try almost any role, but she steadfastly refused to sing or dance. Although she was capable of both, she believed black actors were never expected to do anything else, and she wished to break away from that stereotype.
During the early 1960s Tyson became one of the few black performers to be seen regularly on television. Actor George C. Scott had admired her work in The Blacks and asked her to play a recurring role in his television series East Side/West Side, a CBS drama about social workers. The short, natural hairstyle that she wore on that show caused a sensation and is often singled out as the beginning of the Afro trend. According to Ms., “the first young black actress to face film and television cameras with hair unstraightened … provoked a not-too-minor earthquake within the American minds of young black women. … All black women needed was some public person to take the first step toward a more positive identification with African beauty. And that person was Cicely Tyson.” Donald Bogle, the author of Blacks in American Film and Television, commented, “Tyson was a striking figure: slender and intense with near-perfect bone structure, magnificent smooth skin, dark penetrating eyes, and a regal air that made her seem a woman of convictions and commitment. [Audiences] sensed … her power and range. … Watching the young Tyson, one often has the feeling that, through the turn of a line or a look or gesture, at any moment something extraordinary could happen.”
Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, Tyson was a frequent guest star on television, appearing on episodes of The Bill Cosby Show, I Spy, Naked City, The Nurses, and many other programs. Her film career progressed more slowly. She played the love interest to Sammy Davis Jr.'s jazz musician in the 1966 movie A Man Called Adam, appeared in The Comedians in 1967, and turned in an affecting, if brief, performance as a doctor's rebellious daughter in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter in 1968. However, by this time the film industry was entering a period of “blaxploitation” films, which Tyson considered depressing and demeaning. Tyson told People magazine that “she would rather be unemployed than act in exploitation films like Shaft and Superfly,” adding that “The lesser of two evils for me is to wait, rather than do something that isn't right.” For nearly six years she rarely appeared before the camera at all, with the exception of an occasional television guest spot. There were no parts being offered that she believed were worth taking—and she was ready to forsake her acting career altogether if necessary.
Won Acclaim for Sounder Performance
Fortunately it did not come to that, as Tyson was offered the role of Rebecca Morgan in the 1972 film adaptation of William H. Armstrong's novel Sounder. The story was a major departure from standard Holly-wood fare of that time in that it depicted a black family in the Depression-era South with dignity and sensitivity. Tyson's Rebecca is a sharecropper's wife who is forced to carry on alone after her husband is jailed for stealing a piece of meat to feed his family. “Cicely Tyson is superb,” wrote Jay Cocks in his Time review of the film. “It falls to her not only to display warmth toward her family but also to show such shreds of defiance and muted fury [against] a world that has always threatened to grind her down. For its range and its richness, and for its carefully portioned power, it is an indelible performance.”
Ms. declared that Tyson had broken new ground in her portrayal of black motherhood: “Before Cicely Tyson's internationally acclaimed portrayal of Rebecca … the three major exceptions to the black mother as mammy were Louise Beavers and Louise Stubbs in the two versions of Imitation of Life in 1934 and 1959 respectively, and Ethel Waters in Pinky, a controversial film of 1949. Even these two stories were less than redeeming. In both, the black child was a fair-skinned daughter passing for white. … These celluloid mulattoes were often played by white actresses and interpreted as likeable, but doomed by that awful drop of black blood. … Cicely Tyson's Rebecca was different. Through her, the American audience was introduced to a typical black mother and wife; hard-working, resilient, vigilant, and above all, sensitive.”
The critical acclaim over Sounder had not yet died down when Tyson turned in another world-class performance in the title role in the 1974 television drama The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. This fictional account, adapted from the novel by Ernest J. Gaines, follows the life of a 110-year-old woman from her childhood in slavery to her old age, when she becomes an active participant in the civil rights movement. The role required Tyson to age some 90 years and required extensive makeup to aid the transformation. She endured as many as six hours of makeup application and then worked for up to seven hours in front of the cameras.
The finished film was a triumph that delivered a powerful statement about the struggle of African Americans to achieve economic and political self-determination. Ms. characterized Tyson's acting as “almost eerie in its accuracy. Every gesture was right on target—from the way she walked to the white drinking fountain, her head and hands trembling only from age, to the way she held her mouth as she drank, chewing slightly as if her bridge did not fit properly.” New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael declared, “She's an actress, all right, and as tough-minded and honorable in her methods as any we've got.”
Tyson's performances in Sounder and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman won her many accolades, Page 146 | Top of Articlebut the entertainment industry had changed but little. She continued to seek out challenging, meaningful roles, but few existed for serious black actresses. She gave a brief performance in the television mini-series Roots (1977) as Kunta Kinte's mother, portrayed the real-life Chicago educator Marva Collins in The Marva Collins Story (1981), paid tribute to the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. in the mini-series King (1978), and worked with several other top black actresses in The Women of Brewster Place (1989). Tyson described her dilemma to the Bergen County Record: “I'm a woman, and I'm black. I wait for roles—first, to be written for a woman, then, to be written for a black woman. And then,” she added, “I have the audacity to be selective about the kinds of roles I play. I've really got three strikes against me. So, aren't you amazed I'm still here?”
Supported African-American Arts
During periods when she was not working before the camera, Tyson worked to promote the arts and spent a month each year touring colleges on speaking engagements. One of her most significant contributions to black culture in the United States was the founding of the Dance Theater of Harlem, which she accomplished with Arthur Mitchell. The organization recruits its members from local public schools, provides classical dance training, and gives students the opportunity to perform at national venues. For all her efforts, Tyson became a respected role model for youth, and a magnet school was dedicated in her name in East Orange, New Jersey, in 1995.
Tyson performed in several highly acclaimed television and film projects during the 1990s and turn of the 21st century. She portrayed strong black women in the motion pictures Fried Green Tomatoes (1991), Hoodlum (1997), and Because of Winn-Dixie (2005) and in the television miniseries Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All (1994), for which she won another Emmy Award. As in the early years of her career, Tyson found more work on television than in film, appearing in such television features as Sweet Justice (1994), in which she played a gutsy Southern lawyer; The Road to Galveston (1996), a fictionalized story of a woman who realizes her dreams after being widowed; A Lesson before Dying (1999), in which she portrayed the aunt of a man sentenced to death for a crime he did not commit; and The Rosa Parks Story (2002), in which she played Parks's supportive mother.
Tyson appeared in several Tyler Perry film projects, among them Diary of a Mad Black Woman (2005), for which she won an NAACP Image Award, Madea's Family Reunion (2006), and Why Did I Get Married Too? (2010). In 2011 she appeared in The Help, a highly successful film based on the best-selling novel by Kathryn Stockett.
Returned to Stage after 30 Years
In 2013 Tyson returned to the stage after a 30-year absence (she had last performed onstage in the Evelyn Williams play The Corn Is Green in 1983) to star in the Broadway revival of Horton Foote's The Trip to Bountiful, about an elderly woman, Carrie Watts, who longs to return to her country home in Bountiful, Texas. The role was especially meaningful for the veteran actress, who had been captivated by Geraldine Page's Oscar-winning performance as Carrie in the 1985 film version. Immediately after seeing the film, Tyson had phoned her agent and told him “to find me my ‘Bountiful,’ my last great role,” she recalled to the New York Times.
Nearly 30 years later, Tyson received a call from her assistant, who said that Van Ramsey, a costume designer whom she had worked with on several films, was looking for her. When she contacted Ramsey, she learned that Hallie Foote—the daughter of the playwright, who died in 2009—wanted to meet her. Foote was preparing to mount an all-black production of The Trip to Bountiful on Broadway and believed that only Tyson could play the lead role. “If we were going to do an African-American production, the only person that I felt would really resonate with my father is Cicely Tyson,” Foote told the New York Times. Tyson nearly “dropped the phone,” she told the Times, and immediately accepted the offer, joining a cast that also included Cuba Gooding Jr., Vanessa Williams, and Condola Rashad (the daughter of Phylicia Rashad).
In the play Carrie Watts escapes the clutches of her domineering son and daughter-in-law and boards a bus for Bountiful, wanting to see her home one last time. Sitting at the bus stop, Carrie breaks out into a rendition of the hymn “Blessed Assurance.” Tyson's performance was so moving that audiences regularly sang along, even demanding an encore—which Tyson often gave, never breaking character. Although critics gave the production mixed reviews, Tyson's portrayal of Carrie elicited particular approval. In the Los Angeles Times, Charles McNulty praised Tyson's “exquisitely understated performance,” noting that “This is Tyson's Carrie Watts, and not a false note is struck as she makes her escape with her pension check to her family's long-abandoned home in Bountiful. It's a wonderful addition to a long and varied stage and screen career that will always be remembered for her double-Emmy-winning performance in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.” In the New York Times, Ben Brantley called attention to Tyson's “quiet virtuosity.”
Tyson earned her first-ever Tony Award for her role as Carrie, becoming, at 88, the oldest person ever to win a Tony. “It's been 30 years since I stood on stage,” Tyson said in her acceptance speech. “I really didn't think it would happen again in my lifetime, and I was pretty comfortable with that, except that I had this burning desire to do just one more. One more great Page 147 | Top of Articlerole, I said. I didn't want to be greedy. I just wanted one more, and it came to me with no effort on my part.” When the orchestra began to play, signaling that her 75 seconds were up, she continued, “Please wrap it up … Well, that's exactly what you did with me. You wrapped me up in your arms after 30 years and now I can go home with a Tony.” In addition to her Tony, Tyson also won Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards for The Trip to Bountiful. The play was slated to end its Broadway run in October of 2013.
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A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich, New World Pictures, 1978.
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Hoodlum, MGM, 1997.
Because of Winn-Dixie, Twentieth Century Fox, 2005.
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Moon on a Rainbow Shawl, East 11th Street Theatre, New York, 1962.
Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright, Booth Theatre, New York, 1962–63.
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Haun, Harry, “What a Trip! Cicely Tyson Gets the Rich Role She's Longed for in Bountiful,” Playbill.com , March 30, 2013, http://www.playbill.com/news/article/176447-What-a-Trip-Cicely-Tyson-Gets-the-Rich-Role-Shes-Longed-for-in-Bountiful (accessed August 30, 2013).
—Joan Goldsworthy, Sara Pendergast, and Deborah A. Ring