Cicely Tyson: In Memoriam

Through it all, Tyson kept working. She played Kunta Kinte’s mother Binta in the landmark 1977 ABC miniseries Roots. She also played several real-life American heroines: Harriet Tubman in A Woman Called Moses, Coretta Scott King in the 1978 miniseries King, and educator Marva Collins in the 1981 telefilm The Marva Collins Story.

After working as a substitute teacher in Chicago Public Schools, Collins grew frustrated with the system. She quit and began teaching out of the second floor of her apartment, according to the Chicago Tribune. She founded Westside Prepatory School in 1975, and it flourished. The school drew national attention for helping underprivileged kids; it eventually grew to over 2,000 students. Tyson spent time in Collins’ home while preparing for the role.

Tyson’s performances as Binta, King, and Collins earned her three Primetime Emmy nominations. But there were many more honors coming her way.

Tyson won a supporting actress Emmy for portraying the family confidante Castralia in the acclaimed 1994 CBS miniseries The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. She was also nominated for her starring role as a lawyer in the 1993-94 series Sweet Justice. In the 2000s, she appeared in several Tyler Perry films, including Diary of a Mad Black Woman (2005) and Madea’s Family Reunion (2006). (Perry was one of her closest friends.) She later earned five more Emmy nominations for playing Viola Davis’s mother in the ABC drama How to Get Away With Murder.

But Tyson wanted one last part. And she got it. Tyson accomplished a long sought-after career goal in 2013 when she starred as the wistful Mrs. Carrie Watts in a revival of Horton Foote’s play The Trip to Bountiful. She’d wanted that part for years. Geraldine Page won the Oscar for Best Actress for playing Watts in the film version. After seeing that film, Tyson coveted the role. She told The Hollywood Reporter:

“In 1985, I was wandering around Hollywood and saw Geraldine [Page]’s name on the marquee. I absolutely adored her, but I had no idea what The Trip to Bountiful was about — I hadn’t ever read it, I hadn’t seen it on television, I just was not familiar with it — so I just went into the theater to see her. And I walked out, got in my car, drove right to my agent’s office and said to him, ‘You get me my Trip to Bountiful and I will retire!’

“In 2011, I’m sitting in my house; the phone rings; it’s my assistant, and she says, ‘Van is looking for you.’ Van Ramsey is a costume designer whom I have worked with a number of times. He was looking for me because he had a friend who wanted to meet with me and talk about a possible project, and we met.

She said to me, ‘My father had such tremendous respect for you. I want to do one of his plays. I’d love to do it with a Black cast. And if you say no to the lead, which is what I want you to play, I won’t do it.’ So I said to her, ‘Who was your father?’ She said, ‘Horton Foote,’ and I fell off the chair. When I could recover, I said, ‘And the play is what?’ She said, ‘The Trip to Bountiful.’ Is that something? It was 26 years later!”

Tyson played a widow who defies her son and daughter-in-law by traveling from Houston to Wharton, her childhood home. The play ran for 187 performances, and Tyson again drew rave reviews. Melissa Rose Bernardo wrote in Entertainment Weekly, “Tyson gives an awe-inspiring performance. She sings, she dances, she does everything but cartwheels.” That performance earned her Broadway’s highest honor.

In 2013, Cicely Tyson won the Tony Award for Best Leading Actress in a Play. At 88, she was the oldest woman ever to win that prize. In her acceptance speech, she told the Tony audience, “I’m the sole surviving member of my immediate family. I’ve asked over and over again why. I now know why.” She explained, “I had this burning desire to do just one more — one more great role,” she said. “I didn’t want to be greedy. Just one more. And it came to me with no effort on my part.”

The TelePrompter urged to conclude her extended speech. Tyson read the words: “Please wrap it up,” it says. Which is exactly what you did to me. You wrapped me up in your arms after 30 years, and now I can go home with a Tony. God bless you all. Thank you, thank you, thank you! Thank you.” The audience gave her a standing ovation.

At last, Cicely Tyson had played her last great role — a role she reprised in a 2014 TV movie. She then garnered two Emmy nominations — for starring in and executive producing a Lifetime adaptation a year later. In 2016 — two years before Tyson received an honorary Oscar — President Barack Obama presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

Cicely Tyson after receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Photo by Andrew Harlik for AP News.

“She used her career to illuminate the humanity of Black people,” said Oprah Winfrey. “The roles she played reflected her values; she never compromised. Her life so fully lived is a testimony to Greatness.”

NAACP President Derrick Johnson added: “Today, the world lost a legend, an activist, and a groundbreaking actress, Cicely Tyson. She was an idol to so many of us, including myself, and brought our heroes to life on the silver screen. Not only was she awarded with 8 NAACP Image Awards, but she also received the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal for a lifetime of achievement in 2010. She will remain a beacon and a strong inspiration for generations to come. Rest in Power.”

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