On a Monday morning in October, Cicely Tyson padded into the living room of her friend, the political strategist Minyon Moore, her birdlike frame stylishly swathed in a pair of on-trend black leather trousers and an oversized, shabby-chic Barbara Warren sweater. “Good day,” she said, greeting a visitor. “I apologize for being so tardy, but I’m glad that you’re here.”
Tyson and Moore met when Moore worked with the Rev. Jesse Jackson in the 1980s. Ever since, Tyson has treated Moore’s spacious 16th Street Heights home as a refuge, regularly taking the train from New York, where she lives, to find peace and quiet. “It gives me some kind of solace,” Tyson explained, settling on a couch in a sunny corner. “I was just saying this morning, I could come here and sleep for days. Nobody would know that I was here — no phones, no emails . . . no nothing!”
Tyson and Moore had been up late the night before in the kitchen, “gossiping, catching up” and poring over photographs spanning Tyson’s 60-year career. One of the actress’s favorite images — a 1974 Ms. magazine cover, its first to feature a celebrity — sparked particularly powerful memories. “I was looking at it this morning and thought I should blow it up into a big poster and put it on the wall. That’s how important it is to me,” Tyson said. “Because we were fighting for women . . . and [for] what we had to offer to society, to humanity, and it was being totally disregarded. I was acutely aware of that, and that’s why I agreed to do it.”
In her own understated but steadfastly determined way, Tyson has been fighting throughout a career that has become a beacon of African American representation within an entertainment industry that routinely erased, distorted or simply disregarded the black experience. At a time when actresses of color were still being relegated to cruel stereotypes and caricatures, Tyson personified a new definition of beauty as a model and an actress. During the blaxploitation era in the 1970s, at great professional and personal cost, she refused to lend her image to movies in which women were portrayed in a negative, hyper-sexualized light. Her Oscar-nominated portrayal of sharecropper Rebecca Morgan in the 1972 movie “Sounder” brought an image of strong black family life to the screen at a time when such depictions were rare; similarly, her Emmy-winning portrayal of the title character in the 1974 TV movie “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” explored black history three years before “Roots” (in which she also co-starred).
As she is set to receive a Kennedy Center Honors the weekend, the 90-year-old Tyson has entered an unexpectedly vibrant new chapter in her career. She’s starring in “The Gin Game” on Broadway in a warmly received production that reunites her with James Earl Jones, with whom she’s worked on and off for more than 50 years, since they both appeared in the landmark 1961 off-Broadway play “The Blacks.”
“She is the queen,” says director Ava DuVernay, recalling an encouraging conversation with Tyson after the actress saw a D.C. screening of her first film. “She’s continued to work consistently, whether or not the mainstream awards bodies have said [she’s] worthy. But the black community has held her up as queen for the whole duration. There’s never been a moment when she has not been at the forefront of our consciousness. Her work, her presence, her dynamic form, her art — all of that has been consistent and nourishing the whole time.”
Tyson, who grew up in East Harlem as the child of immigrants from the Caribbean island of Nevis, was one of three children, so small and frail that her mother repeatedly took her to the doctor, who finally sent her away with advice not to worry so much. Curious and kinetic, Tyson wasn’t particularly talkative, preferring to observe, listen and suck her finger, the source of the slightly bucked teeth that only add to her regal mien. She became an actress accidentally, after announcing to her fellow secretaries at the American Red Cross in the early 1950s that “I was sure that God didn’t put me on the face of the earth to bang on a typewriter for the rest of my life.” She modeled for her local hair salon, soon enrolled in modeling school and was going to photo shoots during her lunch hour. She was discovered by another actress who suggested she play her daughter in a small independent film that was never made.
Producers kept calling, but Tyson was wary, believing that she “didn’t know what I was doing.” She attended an acting class but was intimidated by a student body that included Marilyn Monroe; finally, she found “her rock” in an actors’ workshop run by Lloyd Richards and Paul Mann. “When I did my first scene, I was hooked,” she said.
In the early 1960s, Tyson was cast in a Sunday morning drama called “Between Yesterday and Today,” about an African couple grappling with holding on to their culture in the face of impending change. In keeping with her character’s dedication to tradition, Tyson went to a barbershop — the same one Duke Ellington frequented — and asked the barber to cut her hair off. Soon thereafter, she was discovered by George C. Scott, who cast her in the TV show “East Side/West Side.” Tyson became an immediate lightning rod. “Being on that show with that natural hairdo for the first time in the history of television is what started the natural trend,” she recalled. “I tell you, I got bags and bags of mail, from all over, telling me how I was disgracing the black woman. And the hairdressers all complained about the fact that they were losing business.”
Tyson didn’t back down, but the hair controversy taught her that, as an actress of color, she possessed power and responsibility as a symbol, role model and bridge between communities. Throughout the 1960s, she continued to appear on television (on the soap opera “The Guiding Light,” as well as the prime-time dramas “I Spy” and “Gunsmoke”) and movies (“The Comedians,” “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter”). While she was doing press for “Sounder,” Tyson encountered white journalists who evinced surprise that black families were just as loving and tightly knit as their own. What those reporters were saying, she realized, was that “we’re not human beings. It was those kinds of experiences that made me sit down and think, ‘You can’t just go out there and be an actress.’ I knew then that there were several issues I wanted to address, and I used my career as a platform.”
That meant that Tyson said no more than yes for several years, earning money not from lucrative movie roles that she was being offered, but by speaking at colleges and civil rights organizations. “What you put there is everlasting on film,” she explained. “And there was no way in the world that I was going to do something that I thought was degrading to myself as a woman, myself as a black woman, to women in general, to my race of people for future generations.”
Tyson has been married once, to the musician Miles Davis, but she is famously reticent on the subject. “You know I don’t talk about him much,” she said, before recalling the very first time she saw him, when he was performing at New York’s Lewisohn Stadium. “I was curious, I wanted to know who this guy was that everybody was talking about, who played the horn and turned his back on the audience and all that.” Sitting in the last row, “I understood why his back was turned to the audience, and it had nothing to do with disdain for the audience.” The two met years later when she was visiting one of his neighbors and he dropped by “to borrow a cup of sugar!” Press her further on the relationship, and she demurs, insisting, “I don’t think it has anything to do with my work, my personal life.” What’s more, she adds, “My experiences in life are what allow me to feed into a character. And nine times out of ten, if I could talk about the character, I can’t do it.”
In 1985, Tyson was taking a walk when she dropped into a movie theater showing an adaptation of the play “The Trip To Bountiful” starring Geraldine Page. Immediately afterward, she called her manager. “I said, ‘You get me my “Trip to Bountiful” and I’ll retire,” she recalled. “And every now and then I’d remind him.” Finally, 30 years later, she got a call out of blue, asking her to meet with Hallie Foote, the daughter of “Bountiful” playwright Horton Foote. Foote was considering an all-black version of the play and wanted Tyson for the lead. “I fell off the chair,” she said, her voice rising to a shout. “Literally. Fell. Off. The chair!”
Tyson won the Tony award in 2013 for that performance, and has been working steadily ever since, and not just in ceremonial cameo appearances. She had a small but pivotal role in “The Help” and frequently appears in the comedies of Tyler Perry, to whom she’s devoted. In “The Gin Game,” she delivers a deceptively endearing performance in the physically, emotionally and mentally demanding role of Fonsia Dorsey, a nursing home resident whose sweetness masks deeper, more complex layers. “This one really whipped my butt,” Tyson admitted playfully, adding that Fonsia “is one of the most elusive, intricate characters I have ever attempted to put together.”
At a recent performance of “The Gin Game,” the crowd burst into spontaneous applause when Tyson and Jones began to dance in Act II. They seemed to be clapping, not just because their bickering characters had finally united, but for an entire history that Tyson has come to personify by transcending the pigeonholes and constraints that were continually put in her path. “So much of her early work, much like the context of all black artists’ early work, was explanatory,” DuVernay observed. “It was, ‘I am going to justify my being here through teaching you, the outside world, my history and helping you understand who I am.’ ”
Today, that burden has eased considerably. Tyson marvels at the unprecedented range of roles for African American actresses, especially on television, in shows like “Scandal,” “Orange Is the New Black,” “Being Mary Jane” and “How to Get Away With Murder,” on which Tyson has appeared and for which Viola Davis became the first African American woman to win an Emmy for lead actress in a drama. “When did they ever have four black women competing for the Emmy?” she cried happily, referring to Taraji P. Henson in “Empire,” “Bessie” star Queen Latifah and director Dee Rees, who were also nominated. “It was always just one, always just one, always just one.”
If it’s no longer “just one,” that’s largely because of the sacrifices Tyson made throughout a career that, happily, is entering a triumphant second chapter. There’s talk of her doing more episodes of “Murder,” she recently wrapped taping segments of the Netflix series “House of Cards” and she’s already being sent scripts for new plays to do.
“I’m turning around,” Tyson said, noting that now she can finally “do whatever I feel like doing” and take roles that will stretch her as an artist. “Maybe the reason why I’ve been given this second time around,” she concluded, “is that it will allow me to be an actress.”