What a Trip! Cicely Tyson Gets the Rich Role She's Longed for in Bountiful
By Harry Haun
It took nearly 30 years and the role of a lifetime to get Cicely Tyson to journey back to Broadway. She talks about playing Horton Foote's homesick traveler in The Trip to Bountiful.
There is a very touching — literally, tactile — moment late in the 1985 film version of Horton Foote's "The Trip to Bountiful" that switches on the emotional waterworks, and they don't stop until the end. Geraldine Page, as a widowed runaway septuagenarian named Carrie Watts, has bolted from the unhappy home-and-hearth of her overly protective son and controlling daughter-in-law in Houston and returned to the ramshackle homestead of her youth. She reaches out and feels the aged wood, and that touch releases a distant memory from her past. She does it again and again.
When Cicely Tyson walked out into the bright light of day after witnessing this, she dabbed her eyes dry and made a beeline for her agent's office. "I told him — quote — 'You get me my Trip to Bountiful, and I will retire' — unquote — that's exactly what I said," Tyson recalls. "I didn't mean the actual play, of course. I meant another role like that — as strong as those that I've had the good fortune to portray — and I will be finished. That's it. Well, that was 1985, and I consistently reminded him I wanted my Trip to Bountiful."
Fast-forward 28 years. "I don't really know how to describe this, but, about three months ago, I received a call from my assistant who told me that Van Ramsey — a costume designer I had worked with on a number of films — was looking for me. She gave me his number, and I gave him a call. He said, 'Hallie Foote wants to meet you. She's about to do the black version of The Trip to Bountiful.' Well, I just dropped the phone. I'd not said a word to anyone else — and here it had dropped right in my lap!"
The last time Tyson was on the Main Stem she was drilling book-learning into the blossoming mind of a young Welsh miner, thus sparing him the fate of his forefathers, in the 1983 revival of Emlyn Williams' The Corn Is Green at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. "That was 30 years ago," she's a bit embarrassed to admit. "I can't believe it's been that long. You know, I wasn't even thinking of Broadway. I was just thinking of the role."
Why this protracted Broadway intermission? "It's really quite challenging to go from film acting to stage acting," Tyson admits. "I need something that would entice me sufficiently to make that transition, and I wasn't able to find anything that interested me enough."
"I wanted to know what it was about Bountiful that made this woman long to return to it, so I said — and I usually do this anyway when I research roles — 'I'll go to the area.' I need to taste, smell, feel, hear what's there. It was incredible. I understood, although there was a great change in what it had been to what she returned to. I knew what it was she wanted once I set foot on that earth and was enveloped by it."
Producer Nelle Nugent has signed on some all-star co-stars to accompany Tyson to the Stephen Sondheim Theatre when the show opens there April 23.
Carrie's son will be played by Oscar winner Cuba Gooding Jr. and her daughter-in-law by Tony nominee Vanessa Williams. Prominent in support are a pair of Tony contenders: Tom Wopat as the sheriff sent to retrieve her and Condola Rashad as a soldier's wife she meets during her trip.
Also along for the ride: Arthur French, Devon Abner, Bill Kux, Charles Turner, and Susan Heyward. The director is Michael Wilson, who shepherded such Foote works as The Carpetbagger's Children, Dividing the Estate and The Orphans' Home Cycle.
Tyson herself is an Oscar nominee — for "Sounder" (1972) — and a three-time Emmy winner. "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman," in which she magnificently portrayed the 110-year-old title character, won her two Emmys in 1974 (it's hard to explain how she got the pair, but, if you saw that performance, you might be thinking, "Only two?"); the third came 20 years later with "The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All," in which she played a house slave — a relative spring chicken of 60 or 70, alongside Anne Bancroft's 100-year-old widow.
Will Carrie Watts earn Tyson a Tony to carry home? The Tony is about the only award that this role hasn't won for an actress. Geraldine Page got the Oscar and the Independent Spirit Award for it. The 2005 Off-Broadway revival won the wonderful Lois Smith every award she was eligible for: the Obie, the Lortel, the Jefferson, the Outer Critics Circle Award, and the Drama Desk Award.
Only time will tell if Tyson's trip back to Broadway will be equally as fruitful.
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