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Cicely Tyson discusses her long road to ‘Bountiful’

Colette Greenstein
Colette Greenstein has been a contributing arts & entertainment writer for the Banner since 2009. VIEW BIO
Cicely Tyson discusses her long road to ‘Bountiful’
Cicely Tyson as Carrie Watts in “The Trip to Bountiful,” at the Cutler/Majestic Theatre through Dec. 7.

Twenty-six years. That’s how long it took for Cicely Tyson to get her next great role, her “bountiful” role. It all started in 1985 when she first saw actress Geraldine Page’s performance of Carrie Watts in Horton Foote’s, The Trip to Bountiful, which garnered Page an Academy Award for Best Actress.

Page’s performance stirred something inside of Tyson.

“It was a piece, number one, that was beautifully written,” she said. “I was not familiar with Horton Foote’s work. And, it was her [Geraldine Page’s] interpretation of what this woman meant to him; him, being Horton Foote. He wrote it when he was very young. Where did that come from? Was it someone in his family that experienced it? Did he hear someone tell the story? Where did it come from at such an early age? It was the humanistic vein that touched me.”

After seeing Page’s performance, Tyson went to her agent and told him to get her her own “Trip to Bountiful,” meaning one more great role.

“Believe me, I have been incredibly blessed and I said, ‘I’m not going to be greedy, but before I bow out I just want one more.’”

And, so that role did eventually come to Tyson, albeit 26 years later. During that time, Tyson continued performing in film and on television. Known for portraying positive and affirming roles of African American women, there were times when she wasn’t seen in the public eye due to the scarcity of those roles. When she wasn’t performing she was mentoring.

“I’d go across the street and I would speak to colleges and to schools and organizations that had to do with women and young people,” she said. “That’s what I did. That’s what kept me in touch with audiences and allowed me to hear what their thoughts were on certain issues. It was really a beautiful exchange for me.”

Tyson firmly believed and still believes in giving back to the community.

“If someone hadn’t done that for me somewhere along the way I wouldn’t be here today,” she said. “It’s very simple. No man, to quote that, is an island. There isn’t another human being alive who hasn’t achieved anything that didn’t have a stepping ladder so to speak.”

And, so one fateful day, Tyson received a phone call from her associate Miss Harris saying that Van Ramsey, who was a costume designer for The Trip to Bountiful, and with whom she had worked on a number of movies, was looking for her.

“I called Ram and he said, ‘Well, I have somebody who wants to meet you, who wants to talk to you about something. She’s in a play and so we can go and see her after the play and have a little dinner,’” recalls Tyson.

It turned out to be Hallie Foote, Horton Foote’s daughter. Foote was thinking of doing one of her father’s plays with a black cast for Broadway. And, she said to Tyson, “I know my father had such respect for you and your work that you would be the one he would want to play the lead,” Tyson recalls.

Tyson asked “Who is your father?” and she said, “Horton Foote.” Tyson recalls thinking to herself that the name Horton Foote sounded familiar. And, so she asked Hallie, “What is the play?” and Foote responded with The Trip to Bountiful.

“I literally fell off of the chair,” Tyson said. It was as if divine guidance had stepped in to bring the role to Tyson.

Now, back on stage after a 30 year hiatus, Cicely Tyson has not only received critical acclaim for her performance as Carrie Watts in The Trip to Bountiful, she also won a Tony Award, a Drama Desk Award, and the Outer Critics Circle Award for her Broadway performance in June of 2013.

Upon taking on the role of Carrie Watts, an elderly woman who lives with her dutiful son Ludie, (Blair Underwood) and bossy daughter-in-law Jessie Mae (Vanessa Williams) and who wants to make a final journey to her childhood home in Bountiful, Texas, Tyson looked at the character as neither black nor white. She considered it a humanistic story.

“That is why I believe so many people are moved by it,” Tyson said. “It can happen to anyone. If nothing else proves that we are all one that does. It touches every single emotion in your being. I don’t care what color your skin is.”

With the production now in Boston through Dec. 7, Tyson hopes that audiences will leave with an understanding of elders and how important they are in our lives.

“They have paid deeply for the position and the life that my generation, the next generation, are profiting by,” Tyson said. “They’ve paid. And, so we need to remember that. We need to spend time and let them talk to us so that we have the benefit of their knowledge before they leave us.”

ArtsEmerson: The World On Stage presents The Trip to Bountiful through December 7 at the Emerson/Cutler Majestic Theatre. For tickets and information, go to www.artsemerson.org.