Cicely Tyson embodied what it takes to be a great actor
California. — When Cicely Tyson was growing up in Harlem in the 1920s, her mother gave her some early feedback
“She’d say, ‘You’re nosy,’ “Tyson recalled in 2015, adopting her parents’ West Indian accent. She was in the 16th Street Heights living room of her friend Minyon Moore, a political strategist, sitting down for a rare interview with The Washington Post in advance of the Kennedy Centre Honours.
“If she gave me a doll that cried, I wanted to know why it cried. Dolls are not supposed to cry, babies cry.
“I would open it up and find this little thing inside . . . She said I was very destructive, but I was curious. And thank God I still have that curiosity that I had as a child.”
Driving curiosity — as well as an ineffable combination of instinct and intention – shaped the astonishing career of Tyson, who died this week at 96. During our relaxed, free-ranging conversation, I never forgot that I was in the presence of greatness:
Her queen-like command never faltered, even at her most confiding.
But I also gained insight into her singular talent: the ability to disappear into a role with startling thoroughness, while never losing the supreme self-possession that made her such a compelling force, on the stage and on screen.
It had to do with her innate intuition, combined with an unerring sense of purpose and direction.
She described the sudden realisation that her secretarial job at the Red Cross would not be enough for her ambitions; how, soon thereafter, she was invited to model for a local hairdresser, which led to a modelling agent’s office where she was spotted by an independent film producer.
Tyson paid attention to these moments of kismet, understanding that, even when she felt insecure or unprepared, they were happening for a reason.
“I have always been a person who allowed myself to be divinely guided, and it’s when I go against it that I have problems,” she told me.
“There isn’t one single experience that I have had in my life that has not made me the sum total of who I am today. And I pride myself on learning from everything.”
Indeed, it must have been a supernatural force that made Tyson — who was not allowed to see movies outside her neighbourhood church as a child — a movie star.
And not just a star, but a powerful symbol of Black womanhood for a generation of Americans steeped in images that denigrated and dismissed people on the basis of their race and gender.
From the early 1960s, when Tyson co-starred with Maya Angelou, James Earl Jones and Louis Gossett Jr in the groundbreaking play “The Blacks,” and made films and television series like “Sounder,” “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” and “Roots,” Tyson’s regal sense of quiet confidence changed the iconography of Black womanhood on and off the screen.
When she adopted a natural hairstyle for the TV show “East Side/West Side,” she received “bags and bags” of hate mail. But that move also started a cultural trend that symbolized liberation from Eurocentric, male-defined standards of beauty.”I didn’t think of it as a burden,” she told me of those years when so many eyes and expectations were on her. “I thought that was my mission. I was chosen by the forces that be to serve that purpose. . . It wasn’t easy.
“There were things that happened during the course of that time that made me wonder if I would ever survive this life. But I knew that was something I was put here to do. And so I did it.”
Tyson didn’t just float on a cloud of predestination while she built her career. At the height of Blaxploitation, she turned down more roles than she accepted, making her living giving speeches on college campuses.
Keenly aware of her power as a symbol and a role model, she was adamant that her roles perpetuate healthy, positive images.“I’m not denying that it doesn’t exist,” she said of the crime and antisocial behaviour those movies dramatised.
“But that’s not what we’re all about. That was my platform. We have doctors, lawyers, teachers. You know, political people. We have other (people) than drug pushers and whores and the like.”
As purposeful as Tyson was in her early work, she was also constantly aware of the mystical forces that were shaping her choices: A chance encounter in a health food store led her to becoming a vegetarian, which she credited with her longevity and remarkable good health (along with energetically walking the streets of her beloved New York City, “one end to the other”).
It was that same attunement, that ability to listen, observe and pick up unspoken signals, that accounted for her talent for inhabiting her characters less as people she was playing than as spirits she was channelling.
When she was cast as the 110-year-old title character in “Miss Jane Pittman” in her late 40s, the producers were concerned that she was too young for the role. “They were going to build me a hump,” she recalled.
“Then one day I was sweeping the floor in my apartment and my whole left side collapsed. And I held it and I went and looked in the mirror and went to the phone and said forget the hump, I found it.”
The same thing had happened when, in her early 90s, she was preparing to star in the Broadway revival of “The Gin Game,” with Jones. Her posture was too erect, her physicality too youthful, to be convincing as the cantankerous nursing home resident Fonsia Dorsey.
“Tyson said. “And it happened in one of the previews.
“All of a sudden I felt this change in my body and her walk was different. … It happened when it was supposed to happen.”
That is an apt motto for a career whose final chapter included not just Tyson’s triumphant return to the stage (she won a Tony in 2013 for “The Trip to Bountiful”) but such era-defining television and streaming series as “How to Get Away With Murder” and “House of Cards” (with the odd Tyler Perry comedy thrown in for good measure).
Ultimately, Tyson embodied what it takes to be a great actor: the ability to notice, to listen and to respond with courage and authenticity.
“When these incidents occur in my life, I take heed,” she told me. “I move in the direction that I’m getting the message to move in. I could ignore it, but there’s a big price to pay.
“You’ve got to listen. And when you hear, you’ve got to follow. . . Your body, this vessel, this gift, can speak, nothing can speak more loudly to you than your body and your mind. They’ll take care of you in any set of circumstances.” — iolnews