Cicely Tyson at the Tony Awards: This is the Moment*

10 Jun

^ Cicely Tyson with her Tony for Texas native Horton Foote’s evergreen The Trip to Bountiful. Regular readers will no doubt notice that I’ve included only this one photo of Tyson. Usually, I like to include multiple photos not only to make a given article more visually appealing but also as a way to include so-called sidebars with additional, perhaps non-essential, info. I’m refraining from that this time because I want to control what image becomes the default if/when this article is shared through social media.  I want my readers to see Tyson holding her Tony rather than defaulting to pictures of her from Sounder, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Sweet Justice, etc.

Congratulations to the one and only Cicely Tyson, American acting royalty, on her Tony win for Best Actress in a Play per her performance in Horton Foote’s vaunted The Trip to Bountiful. Where to begin?  In her incredibly moving speech, Tyson explained how important it was for her to return to Broadway after a thirty year absence. Her last credit had been for a revival of The Corn is Green. Tyson’s desire to succeed onstage one last time–she’s approaching 80–mirrors the concerns of  Foote’s Carrie Watts, an elderly woman who yearns to return to her childhood home–the Bountiful of the title.

Regrettably, Tyson’s speech was interrupted by “Mr. Stick Man,” as Julia Roberts once famously referred to the orchestra leader who tried to play her off during her Oscar acceptance speech for Erin Brockovich. Apparently, Tony winners are given a measly 75 seconds, which doesn’t seem quite enough–especially for a phenom such as Tyson.  Of course, most winners could do themselves a favor by actually preparing a real speech–as Tyson appeared to have done; instead, what viewers are generally treated to are barely prepared winners who are more interested in reading lists of names rather than making a thoughtful speech. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: a list of names is not a speech. If TV producers and programmers want to know why certain demographics remain immune to the joys of watching awards shows, they should consider offering a seminar to nominees on how to make a memorable acceptance speech. Certainly, this is something that Jodie Foster and Tom Hanks already know how to do–and to do well. I thought Tyson was well on her way to a fully moving, full magical, moment, but, oh, that shameful Mr. Stick Man. As if we really needed any more of host Neil Patrick Harris’s shtick. Oh, I like Harris well enough, and I’m glad he’s found his niche as an entertainer, but last night’s show seemed to drag on and on, which is not usual for the Tonys, often the classiest awards  show of all. Am I the only one who thought that having actors from current musicals appear onstage as their characters to introduce segments was a little, well, stupid? Mostly, it was a waste of time. Cicely Tyson, on the other hand, was not a waste of time. Luckily, she just incorporated the idea of “wrapping it up” into her speech and brought it to a somewhat graceful close.

I’ve been a Tyson fan for awhile. No, I didn’t get to see 1972’s Sounder, for which she earned a Academy nomination for Best Actress, when it played seemingly forever–I want to say at the old UA Cine–but it wasn’t for a lack of trying.  I pushed, begged, and pleaded with my mother to take me to see it, or for us to see it together, but those were not the salad days of my childhood, so  I had to wait and catch up with Sounder when it finally aired on TV.  I’d originally read about the movie in some kind of scholastic weekly reader. What I’d actually read was a condensed version of the script, more like a transcript of the finished movie that resembled the text of a play. I’m sure I eventually read the Newbery winning book by William Armstrong. I’d also read about Tyson when she appeared on the covers of both People and Parade. Such an exciting time!

Of course, Tyson was making waves back in the early 1970s, a time when it seemed possible for black actresses to break through Hollywood’s color barrier and create meaningful work. (She’d already established herself on East Side/West Side, among others, before she hit the big leagues with Sounder, but I digress.)   I think we’ve learned in the decades since then, when Tyson’s recent and not so recent big screen efforts have included brief, if welcome, appearances in the likes of 2011’s Oscar nominated–and SAG winning–The Help and, reaching back, 1991’s Fried Green Tomatoes, that Hollywood just doesn’t get it yet. Oh sure, some progress has been made, but the truth is that opportunities for women–especially women over 40–come along far less often than opportunities for men, and actresses of color must scramble ever more diligently to find work that is both meaningful and visible. No easy feat in the best of circumstances.

Clearly, Tyson’s victory last night showed that even in the highly competitive Broadway arena, both actors and actresses of color often flourish per the awards to Courtney B. Vance (Best Featured Actor in a Play for Lucky Guy)**, Patina Miller (Best Leading Actress in a Musical for Pippin) and Billy Porter (Best Actor in a Musical for Kinky Boots). Interesting aside: both Miller and Porter play roles that play with gender as well since Porter portrays a drag entertainer, and Miller shines in the role that made no less than Ben Vereen a major star–and a Tony winner–in the original production of Pippin back in the 1970s; likewise,  Tyson’s Tony is for a role already made famous by another actress, and that would be the late Geraldine Page, who finally won Best Actress–in her eighth Oscar race–for the movie version of The Trip to Bountiful, filmed in and around the Dallas area back in 1985.  Oh, okay, maybe getting to shine in original work is ideal, but a good role is a good role, a great actress is a great actress, etc.

Indeed, long before Page won her Oscar, and Tyson won her Tony, the role of Carrie Watts had already worked wonders for Lillian Gish, who played the part both on Broadway and on television.

Of course, like Alfre Woodard, another fabulous actress of color who has been sadly under-employed in Hollywood feature films, Tyson has done some of her most formidable work in television, most famously the breakthrough mini-series The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman in which she played a woman who survived the horrors of slavery and reconstruction long enough to see the Civil Rights movement.  Who wasn’t riveted by the intensity and integrity of this massive work, three years before Alex Haley’s Roots (also featuring Tyson)?  Tyson won a well-deserved Emmy for her work as Pittman, as well as a British Academy nod, and went on to earn accolades for the likes of King (in which she played Coretta Scott King to Sounder co-star Paul Winfield’s Martin Luther King), The Marva Collins Story, and The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, for which she won another Emmy in the supporting category. All in all, Tyson boasts an impressive nine Emmy nominations, including one for her short-lived TV series Sweet Justice, in which she co-starred with Melissa Gilbert. I watched it back in the mid 1990s. I was super-excited that Tyson was starring in her own series–even if she shared the screen with Melissa Gilbert; they played attorneys. Duh. Sure, the run was brief, but it worked as a vehicle for Tyson, and it depicted her as strong, vital, contemporary woman; moreover, it was encouraging to see her take charge in a TV show so closely on the heels of  what was barely more than a cameo in a big hit film such as Fried Green Tomatoes. Again, TV often scores in ways that movies do not.

I still have my paperback copy of Ernest Gaines’s The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman that was given to me by my mother when I was in junior high right after the special aired. I’ve read it 2-3 times.  It’s a novel, you know. My well-worn copy has a disclaimer of sorts on the cover advising readers that it is indeed a work of fiction however rooted (Sorry, Alex) in historical fact.  Okay, I recently used the book in a class I taught entitled “Research Methods.”  The idea was for the students to distinguish which, among a batch of a dozen or so selections, were primary sources and which were secondary or tertiary sources. Likewise, which sources were credible and which ones were not?  I specifically picked Gaines’s book because I wanted my students to think through all of the implications: if Miss Jane Pittman were referred to in an essay about depictions of slavery and racism in popular culture, it would be considered a primary source as a work of literature; if an essay were about the historical realities of slavery and racism, Miss Jane Pittman would definitely be lacking. I was tickled by how clever I was. I was struck by the improbability that I would still own a paperback that I’d owned since the 70s, almost a full forty years later, and I marvelled about how many things I’d lost or given away in the decades since then, and all of it, the whole of Tyson and Miss Jane Pittman, came flooding back to me. That was exactly two weeks ago today, so it was all still fresh, right here just below the surface, when Tyson accepted her award last night. This is the moment, indeed.

Thanks, Cicely…

* Also, thanks to Frank Wildhorn, Leslie Bricusse, and Steve Cudden for inspiring me with “This is the Moment,”  from Jekyll and Hyde: The Musical.

** My apologies to the talented Mr. Vance, a three-time Tony nominee with no previous wins, and his fans for not including him in the original draft of this article.

Oh, and okay…PS to Tracy Letts: Congratulations on your Tony for Best Leading Actor in a play for yet another revival of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Given that Letts already boasts a Tony and a Pulitzer for writing August: Osage County, he may very well be the only person ever honored with a Pulitzer as well as Tonys for writing AND acting. I’ll have to investigate that one.  (I know that Alfred Uhry and John Patrick Shanley have Oscars, Tonys, and Pulitzers, but those are all for writing…but I digress.)


2 Responses to “Cicely Tyson at the Tony Awards: This is the Moment*”

  1. Dale 10 June 2013 at 3:42 pm #

    UA Cine is a good guess for Sounder. Mebbe So.
    On Column: Where else can we readers find film history/criticism AND a space/time city-centric focus?

    • listen2uraunt 10 June 2013 at 4:05 pm #

      Thanks, Dale! Well, I guess anyone can write about films, but because they are so personal to me, I just want to tell a story at the same time. something I also did with Girlfriends. I had an idea for a book once, a book in which people would share treasured moviegoing experiences. I wouldn’t be looking for stories about the movies that made the biggest impact on viewers, but all of the other little details about the actual experience: was it the company, or something either before or after the film that added impact? And why. I already know what mine is, but I’m not ready to share just yet. Hint: it’s not about seeing Star Wars at the old General Cinema Northpark I and II during opening week though that’s a good story too. 🙂

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