Now Appearing, the Great Cicely Tyson A scholar and fan retraces the long career of the pathbreaking actress and star.

Cicely Tyson in 1973. (Credit Wiki CC, Dutch National Archives, and Spaarnestad Photo. Edited for size.)

 

Exit, Stage Left

When news of Cicely Tyson’s death reached me, my first reaction was not to believe it. Although ninety-six years old upon her passing on 28 January 2021, Tyson never seemed—not for one moment of her vivid, vibrant, and indomitable life—aged, much less frail, so the notion that she had joined the ancestors did not register for three or four seconds.

Then my eyes misted with tears as I watched Roland Martin, the host of Roland Martin Unfiltered, cancel his in-progress episode’s remaining segments so that his regular Thursday panelists—Reecie Colbert (founder of BlackWomenViews media), Erica “Savage” Wilson (host of the Savage Politics podcast), and Dr. Greg Carr (chair of Afro-American Studies at Howard University)—could talk about Tyson’s legacy in an astonishing, unscripted, on-the-fly conversation that lasted for two hours

Tyson may never receive a better remembrance than this marvelous expression of love and respect,² yet I cannot rid myself of the disbelief that Cicely Tyson no longer walks among us. She was, after all, working up until the moment of her death by granting interviews to many different reporters and media outlets while on tour promoting her just-released, aptly titled memoir, Just As I Am, meaning the news does not compute, at least for me, that the woman known far and wide as Cicely has journeyed to the other side.

What a privilege it has been, and what a tragedy that Tyson, even at ninety-six years of age, left us too soon.

Another reason for being shocked by Tyson’s loss is that, only one week before (and by pure happenstance), I had finished watching all eight first-season episodes of Ava DuVernay’s romantic-drama anthology series Cherish the Day, a program I somehow missed during 2020’s pandemic lockdowns, in which Tyson so authoritatively plays the role of fictional cinematic legend Miss Luma Lee Langston (the “Miss” is important, mark my words) that she will receive an Emmy Award for her work. That prediction is dicey considering how terrifically Tyson played, for six seasons, the role of Ophelia Harkness, the mother of Viola Davis’s fabulous-and-flawed protagonist Annalise Keating, in Peter Nowalk’s How to Get Away with Murder, racking up five Emmy nominations as Outstanding Guest Actress but somehow never taking home the prize.

Tyler Perry shared his reaction to Tyson’s death in a now-famous 29 January 2021 Instagram post by writing, “I was sitting at the table working when I got this overwhelming feeling to watch Miss Jane Pittman. I had not seen the movie in years. I did not even understand the feeling to turn it on, but I did anyway. Not twelve minutes into the movie my phone rang. It was Oprah calling to tell me that Cicely had died. This one brought me to my knees!” ³ I cannot claim such terrible prescience, but, in late November 2020, while searching for another book, I came across my copy of Ernest J. Gaines’s 1971 novel The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. Becoming engrossed in Gaines’s narrative after decades away from it, I soon recalled my first encounter with Cicely Tyson, when, at five years old, I saw her play Miss Jane Pittman in a 1977 rebroadcast of CBS’s 1974 adaptation of Gaines’s story (written for television by Tracy Keenan Wynn and directed by John Korty). I remembered how striking Tyson was, how effortlessly she commanded the screen (even under layers of prosthetic old-age makeup), and how, despite my callow youth, I could not look away. My five-year-old self could not articulate these notions with any precision, of course, but even a child could see how fierce a force to reckon with Tyson was.

Those memories sent me on a quest to acquaint myself anew with her career, starting with The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. Thanks to the alphabet soup of streaming services to which I subscribe (at last count, all of them), I found Korty’s telefilm on HBO Max and many of Tyson’s other cinema, television, and stage appearances elsewhere. To describe her portrayal of Jane Pittman as brilliant is, at this point, not merely cliché but passé. So great is Tyson’s work, so immeasurably does she inhabit this role that, within five minutes, I forget that she is acting and that I am watching a movie made for television on a television set sitting in my front room. Tyson embodies Miss Pittman so fully that, in a feat of theatrical legerdemain, she transports me inside Gaines’s story in a way that few thespians ever have. For most of this movie’s running time, I feel as if I am standing next to Jane Pittman and the other characters as they go about their daily lives, in an experience so real, so penetrating, and so direct that I am shaken when the film ends.

Tyson is so magisterial as Jane Pittman that winning the 1974 Best Lead Actress in a Drama Emmy Award was not enough for the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, which created a special, one-off Actress of the Year Award to recognize her achievement in playing the character from young womanhood to Pittman’s 110th birthday in what remains one of the finest performances ever captured on film.

 

 

Enter, Stage Right

From this auspicious beginning, my hunt takes me back in time to Sounder (see it here ⁴), the 1972 cinematic adaptation of William H. Armstrong’s Newberry-Award-winning 1970 children’s novel that marked the first of Tyson’s four onscreen collaborations with Paul Winfield (among the best pairings in the history of American drama) and, maddeningly, her only nomination for both the Academy Award and the Golden Globe. She lost the Oscar to Liza Minnelli in Cabaret and the Golden Globe to Liv Ullmann in The Emigrants, which I regard as a cultural crime, particularly considering that just one sequence in Sounder sees Tyson offer more authentic emotion in two minutes of screen time than anything that the rasping, gasping, hyperventilating Minnelli manages during the whole of Cabaret: those remarkable moments when Tyson’s Rebecca Morgan runs toward and then embraces her husband, Winfield’s Nathan Lee Morgan, as he returns to their Depression-era, Louisiana sharecropping cabin after being released from the work camp where he has been imprisoned for committing petty larceny. Her shock of recognition, then momentary disbelief, then dawning joy are palpable.

The Oscars eventually corrected their neglect of Tyson’s career when, in 2018, the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Board of Governors granted her an Honorary Oscar (another first in her long career of firsts, since Tyson remains the only Black woman yet to receive an Honorary Academy Award). Tyson’s heartfelt, humorous, and touching acceptance speech⁵ has gone down as one of the best in Oscar history, as did her all-silver, you-must-see-it-to-believe-it outfit (only she could have gotten away with it).

Sounder finished, I jumped to Roots, David L. Wolper’s much-heralded 1977 adaptation of Alex Haley’s family biography, where Tyson plays Binta Kinte, mother of protagonist Kunta Kinte (LeVar Burton in his younger days, John Amos in his maturity), in only one episode, the remarkable inaugural segment that shocked white viewers (including myself and my parents) with its then-unprecedented televisual dramatization of the transatlantic slave trade. Wolper and his casting directors surely required no time to decide which actress possessed the presence, dignity, and talent to play this most important role—that of the character who sets the pattern for her son’s physical, psychological, and spiritual endurance in every installment—before saying, “Cicely Tyson! Is she available? Can we get her to say yes? Can we afford her asking price?”

They could and they did, and thank the universe that they tried.

I am, months later, still working my way through Tyson’s considerable credits. What a happy experience it has been, especially watching her superlative work in the banner year of 1978 (perhaps annus mirabilis is the better term), when she plays not only Harriet Tubman in the first-rate television miniseries A Woman Called Moses but also Coretta Scott King in the miniseries King. This latter production reunites Tyson with Paul Winfield, where they evoke the Kings so powerfully over the span of 4.5 hours that King remains my favorite fictionalized version of this great couple’s life together.

Tyler Perry cast her in his 2005 film Diary of a Mad Black Woman (and four later collaborations), bringing her brilliance to the notice of whole new audiences.

Tyson and Winfield team up again in 1978’s cinematic weepy A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich. Alice Childress adapts this movie’s screenplay from her own 1973 novel in a production that finds Tyson and Winfield playing a couple (this time, girlfriend Sweets and boyfriend Butler) trying to save Sweets’ son Benjie (Larry B. Scott) from heroin addiction. This film may be not great (it is, by turns, a treacly, hoary, sententious plot), but Tyson invests Sweets with such grit and gumption that her performance is impossible to dislike, while her character’s relationship with Winfield’s Butler is as honest and affecting as their work in Sounder.

Tyson, not to be outdone by her performances of the 1970s, is predictably excellent in several later productions: wonderful as the titular protagonist of the 1981 telefilm The Marva Collins Story (even if the movie cloys too much for its own good), droll and delightful as Mrs. Browne in the 1989 miniseries adaptation of Gloria Naylor’s 1982 debut novel The Women of Brewster Place (the fourth and final time Tyson appears onscreen with Winfield), and fabulous as Mama Flora in the 1998 miniseries adaptation of Alex Haley and David Stevens’ 1997 novel Mama Flora’s Family (in a part that could not be more different from her earlier work in a Haley adaptation). Then Tyler Perry cast her in his 2005 film Diary of a Mad Black Woman (and four later collaborations), bringing her brilliance to the notice of whole new audiences.

I will leave it to others more knowledgeable and better equipped than myself to discuss Tyson’s status as a groundbreaking actress who inspired generations of younger performers, while avoiding talk of how unfairly she was treated throughout her career (and of how challenging some of the productions she starred in may seem to twenty-first-century viewers forty and fifty years after their premieres). Wesley Morris’s 29 January 2021 New York Times essay “Cicely Tyson Kept It Together So We Didn’t Fall Apart” does so far better than I ever could. Who will disagree when Morris rightly declares in his piece’s opening lines, “How odd to celebrate someone for not being who we’ve been programmed to expect. But American entertainment worked hard on the mold that Cicely Tyson refused to fit. So, really, what we’ve been saluting all these decades was historic defiance,” then, later, writes, “Tyson was a peculiar kind of famous. I was never told of her importance. I just knew. Everybody knew. This woman was somebody,” and, even later, in his conclusion, states the matter as plainly (and as plain wonderfully) as anyone can: “Tyson knew her place. It was in our movie palaces and living rooms, but also at Black families’ kitchen and dining room tables, an emblem of her race, a vessel through whom an entire grotesque entertainment history ceased to pass because she dammed it off; so that—in her loveliness, grace, rectitude and resolve—she could dare to forge an alternative”⁶?

Yes, sir and yes, indeed.

Along with dancer and choreographer Arthur Mitchell, she co-founded the Dance Theatre of Harlem the day after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.

No one at this late date can doubt Tyson’s talent, commitment, and significance. Marc Lamont Hill, Temple University professor-extraordinaire (and host of the invaluable Coffee and Books podcast), stated this matter best by tweeting, one day after news of her death became public, “Stunned to hear that Cicely Tyson had joined the ancestors. Words like ‘trailblazer,’ ‘genius,’ and ‘legend’ are shamefully insufficient when describing Tyson. May she rest in perfect peace,”⁷ which beautifully expresses the gratitude all Americans should feel to have lived our lives with this exceptional person as part of our national heritage. What a privilege it has been, and what a tragedy that Tyson, even at ninety-six years of age, left us too soon.

 

 

Blazing Trails

More to the point, my little essay has barely scratched the surface of Tyson’s contributions to American culture, so here are a few additional favorites. Along with dancer and choreographer Arthur Mitchell, she co-founded the Dance Theatre of Harlem the day after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Most stories about this collaboration say that famed actor Brock Peters sat with Tyson and Mitchell through the wee hours of 5 April 1968 as they put together what remains one of the world’s major dance troupes. Oh, what an evening that must have been. And not for nothing, Tyson’s Honorary Oscar acceptance speech is a touching memorial to Mitchell’s eminence, both as her friend and as a vital cultural figure in his own right.

Although Tyson’s first credited screen role was “Dottie” in Harold Young’s little-known 1956 film Carib Gold, one early part that nearly everyone seems to forget is her work as Jane Foster, a social worker and office secretary in David Susskind and Robert Alan Aurthur’s splendid 1963-1964 television series East Side/West Side. Not only did this program offer Tyson her first shot as the principal cast member of a primetime network drama, but she also became the first Black actor (woman or man) to appear in a weekly nighttime American television series. East Side/West Side also has the reputation of being the only network show to star George C. Scott, although this notion is wrong (he headlined the forgettable 1987-1988 sitcom Mr. President and the short-lived 1994 drama Traps). East Side/West Side, however, was pioneering in its day, with Tyson and Scott making a phenomenal duo as employees of New York City’s private Community Welfare Service agency. They investigate tough cases and controversial topics in a program that plays like a spiritual successor to Stirling Silliphant’s 1958-1963 social-realist cop show Naked City.

East Side/West Side offered hard-hitting drama about relevant social issues ripped from the headlines long before Law & Order was a gleam in Dick Wolf’s eye. Every one of its twenty-six episodes is available on YouTube (see them here ⁸), and they remain worth watching even if Tyson’s Jane Foster is too frequently relegated to the background so that Scott’s crusading social worker Neil Brock can command the screen. Although the dialogue sometimes tips into too-ripe melodrama, it mostly remains tough-minded and well written. And Tyson’s presence as the intelligent and insouciant Foster made her a pathfinder who served as forerunner to Nichelle Nichols’s role as Lieutenant Nyota Uhura on Star Trek (1966-1969) and Diahann Carroll’s role as Julia Baker on Julia (1968-1971, a half-hour comedy that co-starred, of all people, Paul Winfield).

This jaunt through Tyson’s greatest hits spotlights how much of her best acting occurred on the small screen, but, when she was cast in the right film or stage role, she was dynamite. Her collaboration with James Earl Jones, Louis Gossett, Jr., and Glynn Turman in The River Niger, Krishna Shaw’s 1976 cinematic adaptation of Joseph A. Walker’s 1972 stage play, is well worth watching, while Turman’s warm memories of Tyson (expressed during Roland Martin Unfiltered’s 29 January 2021 tribute) are lovingly told.⁹ Although difficult to track down in years gone by, The River Niger is now available, via YouTube, in a copy of mediocre visual quality.¹⁰ And if this movie’s family drama is not to your liking, who can forget Tyson beside Richard Pryor in 1981’s Bustin’ Loose, proving that she could do it all: tragedy, comedy, and everything in between, in all genres, various and sundry?

Tyson’s presence as the intelligent and insouciant Foster made her a pathfinder who served as forerunner to Nichelle Nichols’s role as Lieutenant Nyota Uhura on Star Trek (1966-1969) and Diahann Carroll’s role as Julia Baker on Julia.

Actress (and former New York State gubernatorial candidate) Cynthia Nixon, upon learning of Tyson’s death, tweeted, “America has had a lot of great actresses, but none greater than Cicely Tyson. Rest in Power.”¹¹ This statement seems unimpeachable, as my incomplete expedition into Tyson’s screen performances has already proven. The woman who began her career as a fashion model for Ebony and Jet magazines, who married (and divorced) jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, and whose love of Black people, especially Black women, made her into an activist for most of her long, long life developed her craft so exactingly that she reigns as one of the greatest artists America has ever produced (or ever will produce).

 

 

The Queen of Joy

And yet, despite these accolades, whenever I think of Cicely Tyson, the quality I most associate with her is joy. She—like her best characters (at last count, all of them)—endured many obstacles, disappointments, and difficulties in her life, but was never diminished, not even in her lowest moments. Watch the remarkable interview¹² she gave to CBS This Morning’s Gayle King only one week before her death, broadcast on 27 January 2021, in which Tyson reveals for the first time (on camera, at least) that she was sexually assaulted by Paul Mann, her acting teacher at the eponymous Paul Mann Actors Workshop, in 1956. Her voice hoarsens, she looks away, and she sheds a tear while acknowledging the pain that this experience still causes, but then, as only she can, Tyson turns this traumatic memory into an occasion to speak about how pain helps connect us not only with our own best selves but also with other people in ways that deepen our collective humanity.

Tyson recounts how she returned to Mann’s acting school as a proud Black woman to show him and the world that she would never be devalued by misogynoir. Her later decision to use her career as a platform to talk honestly about Black peoples’ experiences, including the many delights of living life passionately, is, in retrospect, even more noteworthy given the revelation of Mann’s abuse. In these eight minutes, Tyson demonstrates why she is not merely a national treasure, but, indeed, a legend. I am far from the first observer to note her grace and dignity, but the happiness and humility that Tyson exudes by the time King ends the interview are inspirational, even if this description is woefully insufficient. Her good cheer is so lovely that Tyson’s unmatched capacity for optimism, even in the worst of circumstances, is heartening.

And if you want to see undiluted joy the Cicely Tyson way, gaze upon the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors (available here¹³), which sees her entire, superb career celebrated in the presence of so many luminaries of the American arts, including then-President Barack Obama and then-First Lady Michelle Obama, that the ceremony is staggering to behold. This night’s events became instantly famous when, while commemorating Carole King’s contributions to American song during the program’s final section, the queen of American popular music herself, Aretha Franklin, blazes onto the stage to perform “Natural Woman” in a showstopper so astounding that it moves the Obamas—and everyone else in the audience—to rapture. Tyson leaps out of her seat to applaud and to sing along, but, earlier in the evening, when the time arrives to venerate her long life on stage and screen, an equally wonderful tribute is in store.

Tyler Perry and Viola Davis offer thoughtful, witty comments about working with Tyson (with Perry mentioning East Side/West Side), but when Kerry Washington and Terence Blanchard salute her Tony-Award-winning performance as Mrs. Carrie Watts in the 2013 Broadway revival of Horton Foote’s 1953 play The Trip to Bountiful,¹⁴ especially this character’s rendition of Fanny Crosby and Phoebe Knapp’s 1873 hymn “Blessed Assurance,” Tyson comes alive. She jumps up, claps, sings, dances, and cries along with most of the audience as gospel artist CeCe Winans belts out “Blessed Assurance” backed by the student choir from the Cicely L. Tyson Community School of Performing and Fine Arts (of East Orange, New Jersey).

Her later decision to use her career as a platform to talk honestly about Black peoples’ experiences, including the many delights of living life passionately, is, in retrospect, even more noteworthy given the revelation of Mann’s abuse.

Yet this account scarcely does the segment justice. Winans and the choir (each student wears a tuxedo), accompanied by Blanchard playing trumpet alongside the Kennedy Center orchestra, transform “Blessed Assurance” into the event’s first showstopper, a concert so overwhelming that Tyson cannot stop whooping as Winans’ voice fills the Kennedy Center’s enormous ballroom with what I can only describe as divine sound. These moments are incredible and indelible, as attested by the cutaway shots of Mellody Hobson (then-CEO of Ariel Investments and the wife of Tyson’s fellow inductee George Lucas), singer-songwriter Usher, and Seira Ozawa (daughter of fellow inductee Seiji Ozawa) wiping their eyes.

Memorializing Tyson’s work in The Trip to Bountiful (she is equally enchanting as Carrie Watts in Michael Wilson’s 2014 Lifetime telefilm adaptation of Foote’s play) reminded me of a 2013 conversation I had with a friend living in New York City who somehow cadged tickets to one of the Broadway revival’s final matinees.

“How good was Cicely Tyson?” I asked, suspecting even then that I would never see her give a live performance.

“Transcendent. That’s the only word,” he replied. Then, after a short pause, he continued: “Well, genius is a word, too. And that’s what she was: genius.”

And so, this titan of American acting may have joined the ancestors, but her place in the pantheon of American genius is assured. Her greatness is assured. Her grace is assured. Her unshakable commitment to human freedom, equality, and dignity is assured. And, yes, her blessedness is assured.

That is a memory I wish I could claim for myself, but considering the many additional roles by Tyson that await me during my excursion into her long, versatile, and prolific career—and the several that I will revisit in the coming months—I cannot protest too much. Who could dare to complain, after all, when Tyson’s artistic legacy exists for everyone to appreciate as the year 2021 unfolds?

And so, this titan of American acting may have joined the ancestors, but her place in the pantheon of American genius is assured. Her greatness is assured. Her grace is assured. Her unshakable commitment to human freedom, equality, and dignity is assured. And, yes, her blessedness is assured.

Cicely Tyson may no longer live among us, but everything that she was—her beauty, her intelligence, her decency, her compassion, her talent, and her indefatigable energy—remains a testament to the life of a marvelous artist and a magnificent human being. No matter our sadness at her passing, we can take comfort in knowing that Cicely Tyson—bright, brilliant, dazzling—will always be here.

May she rest in perfect peace.

¹ Roland Martin Unfiltered, “CBS diversity scandal; HUD nominee Marcia Fudge testifies before Senate; Cicely Tyson dies at 96,” 28 January 2021, 176 minutes, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RM3q-kEvznk. Martin announces Tyson’s death at the 1:09:30 mark.

² See Roland Martin Unfiltered, “#RolandMartinUnfiltered celebrates the life and legacy of Cicely Tyson,” 29 January 2021, 175 minutes, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ACmL5gFVzug for many more interviews about Tyson’s life, legacy, and career.

³ Tyler Perry, Instagram, 29 January 2021, https://www.instagram.com/p/CKnHmT0nZet/.

Sounder, directed by Martin Ritt, written by Lonnie Elder III (from William H. Armstrong’s novel Sounder), 20th Century Fox, 1972, 105 minutes, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GMD5Pg-IrTk.

⁵ “Cicely Tyson receives an Honorary Oscar at the 2018 Governors Awards,” YouTube, 18 November 2018, 11 minutes, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rq__IK0eDl0.

⁶ Wesley Morris, “Cicely Tyson Kept It Together So We Didn’t Fall Apart,” The New York Times, 29 January 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/29/arts/cicely-tyson.html.

⁷ Marc Lamont Hill, Twitter, 29 January 2021, https://twitter.com/marclamonthill/status/1354946713409224710.

East Side/West Side, created by David Susskind and Robert Alan Aurthur, 26 episodes, 1963-1964, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EovAfhFSckE&list=PLRU6rBx6nmS3Ce31qxosmkB7aV48A2lb6. These episodes are available on a YouTube channel titled, simply, “Joey” (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC-Sf5p2GtJa0kkcgiNFVDwA).

⁹ Glynn Turman, Roland Martin Unfiltered, “#RolandMartinUnfiltered celebrates the life and legacy of Cicely Tyson,” 29 January 2021, 18 minutes, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ACmL5gFVzug. Turman’s comments run from this episode’s 22:25 mark to the 40:25 mark.

¹⁰ The River Niger, directed by Krishna Shaw, written by Joseph A. Walker (from his stage play The River Niger), Cine Artists Pictures, 105 minutes, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=clRo50Ir6q0.

¹¹ Cynthia Nixon, Twitter, 29 January 2021, https://twitter.com/CynthiaNixon/status/1354956343065632768.

¹² “‘Just As I Am: Actress Cicely Tyson on Legendary Career and New Memoir,” interview by Gayle King, CBS This Morning, 27 January 2021, 10 minutes, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f6US9geaSmA.

¹³ “The 38th Kennedy Center Honors 2015 (FULL): King/Lucas/Morena/Ozawa/Tyson,” YouTube, 15 November 2016, 91 minutes, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9CbT9rn9Itw. The segment honoring Tyson runs from this video’s 42:48 mark to the 57:07 mark.

¹⁴ This same role won Geraldine Page the 1986 Best Actress Academy Award for her touching performance as Carrie Watts in Peter Masterson’s 1985 cinematic adaptation of Foote’s play.

 

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