PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: The Trip to Bountiful—Carrie Me Back
By Harry Haun
Meet the first-nighters at the Broadway opening of The Trip to Bountiful. Cicely Tyson, Tom Wopat, Vanessa Williams and Cuba Gooding, Jr. were there – so was Playbill.
The first warm and welcoming words you heard April 23 when The Trip to Bountiful started up at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre were those of its late author. Who else but Horton Foote, in his soft Southern drawl, could tell you what to do should you "care to partake" of candy? For some, the tears began then. For the slow-to-well-up, there were scattered showers throughout as they gradually realized the great Cicely Tyson is still great—that the passage of time had taken none of her formidable skill.
How great a passage of time? Three full decades have elapsed since she last appeared on Broadway. The corn was green then; now it's dusty husk. And, although La Tyson demurely claims to be eight months shy of an octogenarian, The Paper of Record insists—and insists again via Ben Brantley—that she's 88, but she hasn't denied it.
Which, basically, makes her portrayal of Mrs. Carrie Watts miracle work. It's as though she had an emotional Geiger counter built-in, which unfailingly led her to the correct acting choices during this sentimental journey home—back to Bountiful and the ramshackle homestead where she left her strength and dignity to take up a cramped existence in the Houston apartment of her son and his shrewish wife.
Tyson starts out little-old-lady small, bullied and battered by her demanding daughter-in-law and then switches into determined steamroller overdrive and high-tails it for home. Inevitably, she discovers what we all discover when we look back at where we came from—that we can't go home again—but, with Carrie Watts, the journey is the gesture, and it brings her the inner peace she needs to continue co-existing with her immediate family in relative (pun definitely intended) harmony.
The play's after-party was several planets away from rural Texas at Copacabana on West 47th St., and the drink de jour was iced tea (vodka-laced for non-teetotalers).
It took a long while for Tyson to stash the granny wig and dreary frock and make her Star Entrance. Most of the paparazzi pooped out and assumed squatting or sitting positions. At last, The Great Lady appeared, in a flowing black wig with bangs and a smartly tailored pants suit, looking a little lost in all the flashbulb commotion going on around her, but gamely if almost shyly addressing the stream of TV lights.
"Yes," she said emphatically, "it was worth the wait," referring not to her tardiness but to the 28 years she put in wanting to do this part after seeing Geraldine Page's Oscar-winning Carrie Watts. The highest hope was that something like it would come her way, enticing Tyson back to the stage, but she never, ever expected to see the actual role fall in her lap. But life, which was "strangely merciful" to Norma Desmond, was just as generous to Cicely Tyson and granted her her heart's desire.
A regional theatre had contacted the Foote estate about doing an African-American version of The Trip to Bountiful, and keeper-of-the-flame Hallie Foote, one of the author's daughters, agreed. It went over so well she started talking up a similar version on Broadway, catching the ear and enthusiasm of producer Nelle Nugent.
Strictly speaking, this is not an all-black edition, but it is black enough to point up quietly some of the injustices in Texas of 1953—like the White Waiting Room sign with an arrow pointing off stage or the colored-at-the-back-of-the-bus racial policy.
The cherry on the sundae was acquiring a star like Tyson, who, at the time was thought to be retired or otherwise unattainable, but, it turned out, waving her dream role under her nose brought her around. "If something comes to you the way this role came to me, you know that it isn't something you should ignore," she said.
"Everything about this experience has been absolutely wonderful for me, working with Michael Wilson, the director who loves this play so much, and this great cast. We all loved and supported each other, and I think it shows up there on the stage."
First and last, The Trip to Beautiful is a celebration of Cicely Tyson and her abiding art. That said, it must quickly be added that Vanessa Williams is a revelation here. Broadway is used to her ably acting her way through musicals like Into the Woods, but she has been refining her acting chops on TV ("Ugly Betty," et al.), and she comes ready for bear. It is uphill trying to score points in an unpleasant role antagonistic to Tyson's character, but Williams finds ways to humanize a woman unlucky enough to have her mother-in-law eternally underfoot. Resentment! You have no idea! But when Williams says they used to say she was "a cross between Rita Hayworth and Lena Horne," you can see it. And you sense her constant craving for movie magazines secretly fans a dream she buried when she married beneath her.
"You have to understand the character to make her real," Williams explained, "and I definitely identified living in a two-room apartment with my mother-in-law, not being able to make love to my husband, not having any boundaries, having people go and snoop in your things all the time, not to be able to dream. The only dream she has is to go to the beauty parlor to get a little taste of glamour, and also not wanting to think about the past because obviously she has been childless. It's a painful thing, so there is a lot of things that I chose to embrace to make her real."
Trip provided her other tricks: "Horton Foote's words are fantastic, but the surprise for me is the amount of humor that is in the piece. We do a reading and think, 'Oh, okay, sentimental.' Then you get it on the stage and you get an audience in—we came off our first preview, and we said, 'When did this turn into 'Three's Company'?' There were so many laughs. We had no idea the amount of humor that was in the piece. So it's nice to give the audience that sentiment but also make them joyous."
As the man in the middle of these two warring women, Cuba Gooding, Jr. easily gets the audience's sympathy vote. You expect at any moment he is going to break into James Dean's "you're tearing me apart!" angst, but instead he plays it with an above-and-beyond-the-call kind of patience and politeness—right up to the inevitable moment, late on, when he blows his stack and wins a big hand from the audience.
Off stage, it's the opposite story: "To be with veterans like Cicely Tyson and Vanessa Williams, to be coddling me and nurturing me through this experience has been something I will never forget," he declared. "I came from Shakespeare Festivals in high school, went from that to television and film, so this is always the end game—to get back on stage, but to do it as a debut on Broadway has really been fantastic!"
Tom Wopat also gets some sympathetic licks in as the sheriff who is sent to fetch the elderly runaway. The character came, in fictionalized Foote fashion, from an actual lawman in Foote country. "He was definitely supposed to be a racist," the actor admitted, "but he also was such a politician that he worked with the black community because they had votes and they elected him. He actually worked very hard for them. He had a national radio program in the '50's and appeared in Life, Look and The Saturday Evening Post, but he was known for being fair-minded."
Like Williams, Wopat has a musical-theatre gene and wins Tony nominations with it. "The CD's called 'I've Got Your Number," he said. "We did a date at 54 Below in February, playing it from beginning to end, and we expect to come back. Somewhere in the fall, I'm going to do a week somewhere. We're talking to the Carlyle." Another possibility is a night at Birdland, and for that he wouldn't have to leave 43rd Street.
Another surprised by the laughs she got was Condola Rashad, who plays a white-gloved young soldier's wife who assists the fragile Carrie in her getaway. "You never expect some things to be funny, and then they turn out to be funny," she said with a happy go-figure shrug. "This is a lovely role, I must say. She's a very delicate girl but very strong at the same time. I like how much respect she has for Mrs. Watts."
Rashad didn't immediately snap up the role, she confessed. "It's so subtle I almost didn't pick it up, really. I saw what it was, and I knew what it was about, but I didn't understand it till I talked to the director. He opened my eyes to what the challenges are to this play, which upped the stakes immediately for me. So I went back, thinking, 'Maybe I'm not reading right.' I reread it and said, 'Okay, I see it now.'"
Director Wilson, who directed a superb Caucasian version of this play Off-Broadway eight years ago, knows the play's emotional roadmap by heart—especially by heart—and simply transferred the same human needs of the characters to African-Americans—a seamless exercise that points up the timeless universality of the play.
In addition to the people above, he outfitted it pretty much with The Horton Foote Stock Company—worthies like Devon Abner, Arthur French, Curtis Billings, Pat Bowie and Charles Turner. In all, Wilson said, "there are 14 fantastic actors who have come together to tell, arguably, Horton's greatest masterpiece—certainly his most popular and most known play. I personally believe it belongs, really, on the same shelf as Death of a Salesman, A Streetcar Named Desire and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
"At the core it's about the family, the trio, but then there's all these people she meets along the way—and, of course, once you bring that Houston bus station alive you have to have that ensemble, and all of them are also standing by for the principal parts." Directing Tyson to the Broadway triumph that had too long eluded her was "total joy" for him. "She has such a deep connection to the character, to the story. It's very fluid.
"It's as if we've worked together before—I can't explain it. Maybe it's because we share an equal love and passion for Horton's writing, but we can often finish each other's sentences. It's been really lovely, and she has been so generous with the whole company, and they've had a tremendous amount of fun with her as well."
Director and star collaborated on creating a scene that was never in the play before—an exuberant dance of freedom over the hymns that she is not allowed to sing back home. "It's so nice to sing a hymn when you want to," she exclaims.
Eight faithful denizens of Wharton, TX—Horton Foote's hometown which he renamed Harrison in his plays—came in for the 60-years-in-coming of the Broadway revival of his beautiful Bountiful. Among them were next-door-neighbor Beau James and Van Ramsey, who lived five blocks away. The latter was the crucial ingredient that ignited this production. He had costume-designed for Tyson in the past, and he is the one who informed her that an African-American reprise of Bountiful was in the works. They mixed it up with the four Foote offspring—lawyer Walter, playwright Daisy, restaurteur (Tavern on Jane) Horton Jr. and actress Hallie.
"'A good time tonight' is not the way I describe it," said Jessye Norman, calibrating as carefully as she enunciates. "I was inspired. I was uplifted. The writing, of course, is quite unbelievable, and to see this perfect, perfect cast on stage! That it is even possible that we have the good sense in New York City to put on something that is this strong and this powerful and this meaningful for family situations on the stages of Broadway—it just makes me very happy." Methinks that the lady approves.
Being the Tyson of opera, it's not at all surprising that the two of them are very good friends. "We've known each other quite a long time. We've both been sorta supporters and board members and all the rest of it of The Dance Theatre of Harlem, supporting Arthur Mitchell and the great work that they do there. And isn't it wonderful that that theatre is back as well? Fabulous!"
Prominent among the first-nighters: Lois Smith (who raked in the most awards as Carrie Watts in the 2005 Off-Broadway Trip to Bountiful), Elizabeth Ashley (a Texas matriarch in Foote's Dividing the Estate) with producer Jeffrey Richards, producer-actress Tamara Tunie and her dandily turned-out crooner hubby Gregory Generet ("If you're going to be a bear, be a grizzly!"), Erika and Kevin Liles, "Today" weatherman Al Roker, award-courting Michael Urie (on his night off and out of Buyer & Cellar, cheering on his "Ugly Betty" co-star Williams), Andre de Shields (who did Just So, the musical version of "The Jungle Book" years ago, and now heads for Chicago's Steppenwolf and a new Mary Zimmerman production of The Jungle Book: "I'll play an orangutan and finish the work I started in Primate!"), Suzanne de Passe (revealing Berry Gordy left with the patrol at dawn today for L.A., "his work is done here") with Motown director Charles Ranolph-Wright, fashion designers Patricia Field and Chris Benz, English rapper and record producer Estelle, veteran actor Joseph Sirola (sporting his homegrown Garrett rose), Steve Kazee (Once a Tony winner, soon a 54 Below crooner "of my own stuff"), LaChanze (who had Tyson for a mom in "The Help"), Kate Mulgrew of "Star Trek: Voyager," Lynn Kendall, Isiah Thomas, and James Houghton, who gave Foote a season at his Signature Theatre.
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