There is a beach with fluffy sand in Cicely Tyson's future. She can't wait to get to it. Just don't ask where it is.
There is a beach with fluffy sand in Cicely Tyson’s future. She can’t wait to get to it. Just don’t ask where it is.
The newly crowned Tony Award winner is counting down the days until Oct. 9, when she ends her starring role in “The Trip to Bountiful” and can relax in the sun and surf.
“There’s one place that I have in mind. One place. That’s where I go. And nobody knows it. I just jump on a plane and I’m gone and nobody has a number or an email or anything,” she says, smiling.
Tyson will have earned her spot in the sun after making her return to Broadway after 30 years and netting rapturous reviews, a Tony at age 88 and an audience that included the first lady and her daughters.
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“What I keep repeating to myself is, `All things are possible. You really just have to believe,'” she says over hot water and lemon at the Cafe Carlyle. “It gives me such great joy just to build a character that is so real to people.”
Tyson hasn’t missed a single performance since the revival of Horton Foote’s play opened its doors on March 30. She plays Carrie Watts, a widow who shares a cramped two-room apartment in Houston in 1953 with her devoted son and overbearing daughter-in-law.
Watts’ only desire is to revisit her old home in Bountiful and recapture the purpose she seemed to lose when she left for the big city decades ago. Tyson was smitten by the play when she saw Geraldine Page in a movie version in the 1980s and has been bugging her agent for her own “Trip to Bountiful” for years.
“I was just asking for another great role. I have been really fortunate, really blessed,” she says. “I have had the most wonderful characters to play. I thought, `I just want one more of those. Just one more. I won’t be greedy. I’ll move out of the way and let young folks take over.'”
The play’s universal themes have been proven by the fact that a predominantly black cast has slipped into a work originally played by whites. “These are people irrelevant of color. And I think that has been the gift,” she says.
A one-time model, Tyson earned an Oscar nomination playing a sharecropper’s wife in “Sounder” in 1972 and won two Emmys for playing the 110-year-old former slave in the 1974 television drama “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.” A new generation of moviegoers saw her in the 2011 hit “The Help.”
She is known for her ability to disappear into roles, and the part of Carrie Watts was no different. She flew to Foote’s home in Wharton, Texas, to get a sense of the playwright’s world, taking home a small bag of soil and abandoning her vegetarian diet because she believes her character eats meat.
“I find it difficult to understand how you can project another person’s life if you have not eaten the food they eat, lived and breathed the air,” she says. “When I’m on the stage and I’m talking, I can visually see the gulf, the woods, the farm. I can visually see it so I know what I’m talking about.”
Michael Wilson, the director, has been astonished by Tyson’s thirst to weave everything into the tapestry of the character, from mapping out the widow’s life year by year, to what hymns to sing, to how the onstage wardrobe would be laid out. She admits to sometimes blurting out things that only the widow would say.
“She is just so willing and eager to make this a defining portrait of what she feels is one of the most rich, complex, incredibly human characters ever to be created in an American drama,” Wilson says. “I think the audience has such access to her heart, soul and spirit.”
On Tony night, Tyson beat Laurie Metcalf, Amy Morton, Kristine Nielsen and Holland Taylor for best leading actress in a play. She heard her name and was stunned. (She hadn’t prepared a speech. “I think it’s presumptuous,” she explains.)
By the time Tyson ascended the stage, inspiration hadn’t hit yet. “I stood there looking at the mass of standing people and I thought, `What am I going to say?’ I burned up half my time wondering what I was going to say.”
Then the show’s producers had the questionable taste of trying to nudge her offstage with swelling music and a message on a teleprompter to end her speech. She turned it into a memorable Tony moment.
“It says, `Wrap it up.’ Well, that’s what you did. You wrapped me up in your arms after 30 years,” she told the crowd. “Now I can go home with a Tony. God bless you all and thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
Among the people who have since watched the show are Michelle Obama and daughters Malia and Sasha, who stopped by Aug. 24. The trio later met the cast.
“One would like to believe that they do not need validation from the likes of the first lady. But you do,” she says, laughing. “That’s the stamp of approval. It gets no better than that.”
Stage and film offers have come pouring in since the Tony win, but Tyson has never been one to chase paychecks, and the Tony win hasn’t changed that.
“I’m very selective as I’ve been my whole career about what I do. Unfortunately, I’m not the kind of person who works only for money. It has to have some real substance for me to do it,” she says. “It’s the role that determines where I go.”
One place where Tyson goes next is clear: some well-deserved rest and relaxation.
“I need to spend some time with Cicely,” she says.
Follow Mark Kennedy on Twitter at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits