Cicely Tyson: “I Stayed on the Right Track”

The Daily — Feb 3, 2021
Cicely Tyson in East Side/West Side (1963–1964)

The greatness of Cicely Tyson lies not just in the fact that she forged a path for Black actors but also in her determination to forge the right path. This is the crux of Wesley Morris’s moving appreciation in the New York Times. Morris pulls a quote from Tyson’s memoir, Just As I Am, published last Tuesday, just two days before she passed away at the age of ninety-six. “My art had to both mirror the times and propel them forward,” writes Tyson. “I was determined to do all I could to alter the narrative about Black people—to change the way Black women in particular were perceived, by reflecting our dignity.”

Morris points out that Tyson made this “vow” in 1972, just as the “so-called Blaxploitation filmmaking boom” was taking off. Tyson wasn’t having it. “No hookers, no servants, no big bad mamas,” writes Morris. “Which meant that, for a woman dependent on an industry that trained its patrons to overlook a beauty as singular and angular and walnut-brown as hers, she’d essentially declared a hunger strike.”

She wouldn’t be hungry for long. 1972 also marks the beginning of a procession of performances that would make Tyson an internationally renowned star. Sounder, the story of a family of sharecroppers in Louisiana in 1933, was directed by Martin Ritt and adapted by Lonne Elder III from William H. Armstrong’s novel, the winner of a Newbery Medal awarded to outstanding children’s books. In a conversation with Viola Davis that appeared in Elle in 2017, Tyson said, “I remember Marty Ritt calling me and saying, ‘Cis, this is supposed to be a children’s film. But if they’re not careful, they’re going to make a damn good film.’”

Sounder scored four Oscar nominations, including one for Tyson—her only one, though she would receive an honorary Oscar in 2019. In Sounder, Tyson plays Rebecca, who is left to run the farm alone when her husband, Nathan (Paul Winfield), is sentenced to a year of hard labor for stealing a chicken. One scene in particular stands out to Time’s Stephanie Zacharek. “When Rebecca has to face a white storekeeper—also her family’s landlord—after her husband’s arrest, he reminds her, his voice metallic with condescension, how much he’s done to help her family,” she writes. “She accepts his scolding politely, because she has to. But there’s a sea of feeling rolling beneath the very surface of her face, some waves glinting with resentment and anger, but most of them shimmering with a pride, a sense of self, that can’t be touched.”

Two years later, Tyson took on the title role in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, a television movie based on Ernest J. Gaines’s novel. Celebrating her 110th birthday in the early 1960s, Jane Pittman looks back on a life that began when she was a young slave at the end of the Civil War. “What is remarkable about a story of such scope is that it remains within human focus, held meaningful by the quavering voice and wry comments of a lady who seems eternal rather than elderly,” wrote Judith Crist in New York Magazine a few days before CBS broadcast the movie in January 1974. Tyson, wrote Crist, “goes beyond appearance so that every fiber of her body seems attuned to a time and age, and every gesture and intonation changes with such subtlety that we are drawn deeper and deeper into the sense of shared experience.”

Tyson won an Emmy for her performance, and she was nominated for another for her supporting turn as the mother of Kunta Kinte in the first episode of Roots (1977), one of the most-watched miniseries in television history. The impact of this adaptation of Alex Haley’s best-selling novel, particularly in terms of raising awareness among whites in America of the Black experience, simply cannot be underestimated. And Tyson “possessed a nobility of character and carriage that could, in equal turns, enchant and intimidate,” writes LeVar Burton, who played her son, in a tribute at Variety. “She knew exactly who she was and dared anyone to disagree with her self-assessment.” In all, Tyson was nominated for fifteen Emmys, five of them consecutively, beginning in 2015, for her supporting performance alongside Viola Davis in the ABC series How to Get Away with Murder.

Tyson was born in East Harlem in 1924, one of three children of Caribbean immigrants, stern Christians who objected to young Cicely’s flirtation with the arts. Her mother was “my source of energy,” she told Davis, “and I used that to prove her wrong.” After studying at the Actors Studio in the 1940s, Tyson landed her first role in 1951 in Frontiers of Faith, a live series on NBC broadcast from Rockefeller Center. A handful of small movie roles followed in the late 1950s.

In 1961, Tyson joined the phenomenal cast of the off-Broadway production of Jean Genet’s The Blacks, a play about a mock trial originally commissioned and performed in Paris. “Genet always insisted that he had been asked to write this play,” writes Edmund White in his biography of the playwright, novelist, and poet. “Moreover, as he said, ‘This play is written not for Blacks but against Whites.’ Elsewhere he said that he had written it against himself.” James Baldwin took a keen interest in the production, which ran for a remarkable 1,408 performances, and in its cast: Tyson, James Earl Jones, Roscoe Lee Browne, Louis Gossett Jr., and Maya Angelou, who once recalled that “nothing could keep [Baldwin] from advising me on my performance.” He seems to have kept his thoughts on Tyson’s performance to himself.

Tyson played Virtue in The Blacks for two years before taking on the role of a secretary to a social worker played by George C. Scott in the CBS drama series East Side/West Side. “She wore a short Afro on the show, and keep in mind that back in 1963 that was about as radical and subversive as one could imagine,” writes Sergio Mims at RogerEbert.com. And “the backlash was fierce,” not only from white viewers but also “from black women who took particular offense. It was simply not the thing to do. How were they going to be accepted into the white mainstream society without straightening their hair? The controversy even made the cover of Ebony. But that was her.”

It was. In 2019, Lucy Feldman interviewed Tyson for a special issue of Time edited by Ava DuVernay (and Tyson appeared last year in DuVernay’s anthology series, Cherish the Day). “When I made the decision to use my career as my platform,” Tyson told Feldman, “to try to make a dent in some of these injustices that I witnessed and experienced in life, I said if just reach one person, one person, then I will be happy. There isn’t a day—I’m grateful to say—that when I walk out of my doors I don’t run into somebody who says, “I can’t tell you what you’ve done for me. You changed my life.” To me, you can’t buy that. It just confirmed for me that I was on the right track and I stayed on the right track.”

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