Fences Tony Winner and A Different World Star Mary Alice Dies at 85 | Playbill

Obituaries Fences Tony Winner and A Different World Star Mary Alice Dies at 85

The stage and screen star started her acting career in community theatre after working as a teacher.

Tony-winning star of stage and screen Mary Alice died July 27 at the age of 85 in New York City.

Alice is best known to Broadway theatregoers for her Tony- and Drama Desk Award–winning performance as Rose in the original Broadway production of August Wilson's Fences, a role she played opposite James Earl Jones. The play, part of Wilson's Century Cycle exploring the Black experience in America in each decade of the 20th century, centers on Troy, a former Negro League baseball star now working as a trash collector. Over the course of the play, it is revealed that Troy is having an affair with another woman with whom he has fathered a child. Alice talked about her take on the role of Troy's wife to The New York Times in 1987.

"I don't think my essence is too different from her. I based her not only on myself but on my mother, my aunts, my grandmother, and other women I knew growing up in Chicago in the 1950's," she said. "Sometimes you just feel an affinity; you immediately know who a person is, and she's one of those roles I identified with very early on. These were women who were not educated, living in a time before women's liberation, and their identities were tied up in their husbands. They put up with a lot of indignities and humiliations because they were women and were attached to men, and their life outside the house was very limited. Other than going to church, it was family."

Alice also received Tony and Drama Desk Award nominations for her performance in 1995's Having Our Say, with additional Broadway credits including The Shadow Box and No Place to Be Somebody. She was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame in 2000.

Born Mary Alice Smith in Indianolo, Mississippi, December 3, 1936, Alice started her professional life as an elementary school teacher. By the 1960s, she had returned to her childhood love of acting and started performing in community theatre before moving to New York City and appearing in a number of plays at La MaMa, including Adrienne Kennedy's A Rat's Mass. Alice would make her screen debut in 1974's The Education of Sonny Carson, which led to guest appearances on TV's Police Woman and Sanford and Son and longer runs on All My Children and A Different World. Additional screen credits include Sparkle, Beat Street, Malcolm X, and Life With Mikey. She won an Emmy Award for her work on the 1993 series I'll Fly Away.

Alice made a notable late-career appearance in The Matrix film franchise, taking over the role of The Oracle in The Matrix Revolutions from Gloria Foster following her death; she would reprise the role for the 2003 video game Enter the Matrix.

Alice retired from acting in 2005 and lived in Manhattan until her death.


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