Occasionally, there is an almost uncanny parallel between a player and her role. The journey that actress Cicely Tyson is on at the moment—returning to Broadway after an intermission of three decades—is not so different from the one that her character, Carrie Watts, is attempting in The Trip to Bountiful—getting back to the nourishing roots from which she sprang.
“Someone asked me what I hoped audiences would take away from the play,” Ms. Tyson who, like Watts, is in her 70s, said in a recent interview with The Observer. “I said, ‘The one thing that struck me about this story is the lack of respect and honor accorded elders.’” In the play, Watts is forced to live in cramped quarters with her unwelcoming son and daughter-in-law, who treats her like a maid.
Ms. Tyson was raised in a very different school of values. “I never knew any of my grandparents, but I grew up with a respect for elders,” she said. When her mother had to work, she’d often leave the young Ms. Tyson with one of these elders, a woman she knew as “Nana.” “My respect for this woman has permeated my whole life. It has just spread outward.”
That kind of respect informed Ms. Tyson’s most famous performance to date—that of a slave who ages from Civil War to Civil Rights and celebrates her 110th birthday by drinking from a whites-only water fountain. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman won her two Emmy Awards in 1974 (Actress of the Year and Best Lead Actress in a Drama). A third came 20 years later for Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, in which she played a house slave. In between were the original Roots and a portrayal of Coretta Scott King. In movies, she made her mark depicting a kind of sharecropping Mother Courage in Depression-era Louisiana in Martin Ritt’s Sounder.
But there have not yet been indelible marks on Broadway for Ms. Tyson, just hen-scratches—seven fast shows lasting a total of 110 performances—and this could be the impetus for her Broadway comeback. It certainly doesn’t hurt that she is making it in a role she has coveted for 28 years.
After she saw the 1985 movie, she said, “I told my agent, ‘You get me my Trip to Bountiful, and I’ll retire.’”
He didn’t, but eventually the role of Carrie Watts found her. “There was a regional production, I believe in Cleveland,” said Michael Wilson, the director of the current revival. “It wanted to explore the family as black, so they contacted [writer] Horton [Foote]’s daughter, Hallie Foote, for permission. She asked me what I thought of it, and I said, ‘I think it’ll work very well.’ Then, she said, ‘Do you think it’ll work very well on Broadway?’ I said, ‘Sure, if you get Cicely Tyson …’”
After she was cast, the rest of the ensemble fell into place—Cuba Gooding Jr. and Vanessa Williams for the son and daughter-in-law, Condola Rashad as a soldier’s wife she encounters en route and Tom Wopat as the sheriff sent to retrieve her.
“She has such a deep connection to the character, to the story,” Mr. Wilson said. He called the casting “Cicely doing what amounts to her King Lear.”
BEFORE REHEARSALS began, Ms. Tyson inspected the Texas that Mr. Foote wrote about so lovingly—in and around his hometown of Wharton—with his daughter serving as tour guide and interpreter. “She interviewed a lot of people down there and got a sense of the place,” said Hallie Foote. “Where Bountiful might have been, what it was like to be there.
“My dad would be thrilled she’s doing this play. She’s the kind of actor he adored. He loved her work—especially Sounder. This whole cast gets his world. In this version, you can see what a universal play it is, how it spans generations, how it spans race.”
Lillian Gish was the first to take the trip to Bountiful—on television, in less than an hour—in March of 1953. Eight months later, Mr. Foote expanded that teleplay into three acts for a month’s ride on Broadway with Ms. Gish. Elia Kazan evidently caught the play and turned two of its little-known actresses into the back-to-back Best Supporting Actress Oscar winners in ’54 and ’55, Eva Marie Saint and Jo Van Fleet.
Carrie Watts didn’t get her Oscar-winning portrayal until Geraldine Page played her in 1985, and Lois Smith also cleaned up in the role in a 2005 Off Broadway revival, winning all four awards for which she was eligible.
Which still leaves a Tony for Ms. Tyson to take home. And it will have been a long time coming. Her last Broadway outing, 30 years ago, was as Miss Moffat in The Corn Is Green, and she creditably filled the high-button shoes worn by the likes of Ethel Barrymore, Eva Le Gallienne, Wendy Hiller, Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn.
The only downside to this “color-blind casting” was that Ms. Tyson sometimes did not get entrance applause. The set was already cluttered with soot-covered Welshmen less-than-fresh from a hard day in the coal mines. By the time the audience realized The Star had arrived, the moment was lost. But it speaks volumes for her talent that great roles gravitate to her, like this late-blooming Carrie Watts. She can’t say why or how it happens, but “I consider that a blessing, believe me when I tell you.”
Ms. Tyson started out as a fashion model, discovered by an Ebony magazine photographer who found her at a hairstyle show that her beauty-salon operator persuaded her to enter.
She made her stage debut in a YMCA production of Dark of the Moon that was directed by her acting teacher at the time, Vinnette Carroll—one of many distinguished African-American artists with whom she has worked over the years.
Another one she met at that very first table reading was Roscoe Lee Browne, who played the minister in the show. “I was so frightened, I sat there with the script up in my face,” she recalled. “He would take my hand down and say, ‘You are going to be marrrrrrvelous.’ He kept doing that—throughout my whole entire career, I do believe. I miss him.
“In those days, they would have on Broadway every year a show called ‘Talent’ for that year—Talent ’59, Talent ’60 and so on, and one of the scenes from Dark of the Moon was selected to be in Talent ’59. And that was my first exposure to Broadway.”
Her first Broadway credit, also in 1959, was as Eartha Kitt’s understudy in a nine-
performance wonder called Jolly’s Progress. She never went on. “She never spoke to me,” she said of Ms. Kitt, “and I would never approach her unless she said something to me. One day I was outside her dressing room and heard her on the phone. She said, ‘Who? Cicely? Oh, my goodness, she has to be a fantastic actress.’ I didn’t even think she knew my name.”
Next was The Cool World, a play in two acts—and two performances, followed by her longest Broadway run to date. Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright lasted—despite the backstage battles (director Joshua Logan vs. star Claudia McNeil)—33 performances between December 1962 and January 1963. “Oh, my dear! For the first time, I was made aware how tumultuous these stage plays can be backstage. I suppose it’s the nature of the instrument of the artist.”
Her Off Broadway career was happier. In 1961, she was among the original cast of Jean Genet’s The Blacks, which, at 1,408 performances, was the longest-running Off Broadway non-
musical of that decade. “It started avant-garde here.”
1968’s Carry Me Back to Morningside Heights, Sidney Poitier’s one and only Broadway-directing effort, and 1969’s Trumpets of the Lord, a musical based on Langston Hughes’s God’s Trombone, each threw in the towel after seven performances, and Ms. Tyson swore off Broadway for the next 14 years.
Mr. Poitier took her out for some vino and sympathy when Trumpets closed. “We went to a restaurant, and I said to him, ‘Sidney, I’m finished. This is it. I can’t do this anymore. I cannot. It is like having a miscarriage. You work, you carry a child for close to nine months, then suddenly you lose it. That’s what happened with Trumpets. I’m just going to quit and leave this business.’ He looked at me for the longest time, and he said, ‘And do what, Cicely?’ I’ll never forget it. He’s the reason I’m still here.”