Cicely Tyson remembered as iconic performer

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Colleagues, fans praise actress who died at age 96

By Juliet Bennett Rylah

Contributing Writer

An outpouring of love, admiration and respect continued to pour in this week for Cicely Tyson, the prolific TV, film, and theater star who captivated audiences with her barrier-breaking performances.

Tyson died Jan. 28 at the age of 96.

Her death produced comments from fans and those in the entertainment business that she inspired over her 70-year career.

“Miss Tyson was an international treasure,” said Sandra J. Evers-Manly, president and founder of Black Hollywood Education & Resource Center. “She was iconic, she was regal and a queen both on and off the stage.

“She delivered outstanding performance after performance with fantastic power and great dignity,” Evers-Manly added in a statement. “She made us proud and her life is worth celebrating. We will always cherish what she represented as she paved the way for so many others.”

One of Tyson’s more recent roles was on the ABC legal drama “How to Get Away With Murder,” as mother to Viola Davis’s character, attorney Annalise Keating.

On her Instagram, Davis wrote, “You made me feel loved and seen and valued in a world where there is still a cloak of invisibility for us dark chocolate girls. You gave me permission to dream … because it was only in my dreams that I could see the possibilities in myself.”

Part of Tyson’s legacy and her impact on Black actors was how particular she was about the roles she took, even when it meant having no roles at all. She refused parts in Blaxploitation films or roles that she felt were demeaning.

In a 1972 interview with Parade magazine, she said, “We Black actresses have played so many prostitutes and drug addicts and housemaids, always negative. I won’t play that kind of characterless role anymore, even if I have to go back to starving.”

She told NPR that her choice was cemented during a press conference promoting the 1972 movie “Sounder.” A white journalist said he was surprised to hear the Black children in the film call their father “daddy,” the same monicker his children used, which forced him to confront his prejudice about what a Black family looked like.

“He could not equate the fact that this man was on the same level as he,” Tyson said. “And really, I admired him for standing up in an audience and saying that, and I thought to myself, ‘Cicely, you really can’t afford the luxury of just being an actress.’”

Gil Robertson, CEO of the African American Film Critics Association, which honored Tyson with a special achievement award in 2013, highlighted that incident in his statement on Tyson’s passing.

“From that moment, she became a vessel through which all the dignity of who she was as a Black person, a Black woman, could flow,” Robertson said. “She will be forever remembered as a trailblazer and advocate for civil rights and women’s rights. We are inspired by her genius and to her standard of excellence.”

Ayuko Babu, founder of the Pan African Film & Arts Festival (PAFF), said he recalled watching Tyson on the 1963 CBS drama “East Side/West Side” when he was a teenager. Tyson played the secretary of a New York social worker, becoming the first Black actor to co-star in a TV drama.

What was stunning for me as a high school student in Cheyenne, Wyoming, was that she wore a natural —her hair was not pressed,” Babu said. “This was a powerful message for me [be yourself, know yourself] and this has been one of the guiding principles of my life since then. If I had not received her message, I doubt seriously if I would have ever thought about or helped create the Pan African Film & Arts Festival.”

Due to the ongoing pandemic, this year’s festival will run virtually from Feb. 28 through March 14. Babu said Tyson would be saluted throughout the festival.

Former President Barack Obama, who presented Tyson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016, said Tyson “was one of the rare award-winning actors whose work on the screen was surpassed only by what she was able to accomplish off of it.”

“She had a heart unlike any other — and for 96 years, she left a mark on the world that few will ever match,” he added.

Vice President Kamala Harris said,Cicely Tyson broke barriers and paved the way for so many. She inspired the world with her art, activism and altruism.”

U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, who considered Tyson a friend, called her “one of the most profound, talented and celebrated actors in the industry. She was a serious actor, [a] beautiful and spiritual woman who had unlocked the key to longevity in the way she lived her life.”

Actor Morgan Freeman said “She truly was an extraordinary person. There was power, integrity and grace in everything she did, and her intention was always to represent the underrepresented.”

Singer and actress Jennifer Hudson called Tyson an icon and showstopper.

“You broke the industry open for all of us and for that and so much more thank you,” she said.

Tyson was born in East Harlem, New York, to William Augustine and Fredericka Tyson, who immigrated to the U.S. from the West Indies.

She worked as a fashion model before launching a long career on stage and screen. From her first TV role in an episode of NBC’s “Frontiers of Faith” in 1951, she would go on to rack up dozens of credits, including “Roots” (1977); “A Woman Called Moses” (1978), in which she portrayed Harriet Tubman; “Fried Green Tomatoes” (1991), “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” (2005), “The Help” (2011) and many more.

In 1972, she was nominated for an Oscar for her role in the drama “Sounder,” where she played Rebecca Morgan, a sharecropper in 1930s Louisiana who had to tend and harvest a farm herself after her husband was arrested for stealing food for his hungry family.

Two years later, Tyson took home two Emmys for her titular role in the TV movie “The Autography of Miss Jane Pittman.” Set during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the film featured Tyson as a 110-year-old former enslaved woman who recounts her life story. Tyson’s brilliant performance — and special effects makeup — took the character from age 23 to 110.

In 1979, Tyson became the first Black woman to host “Saturday Night Live.” In 2013, at 88, she became the oldest person in history to win a Tony award for her performance in “The Trip to Bountiful.” She received an honorary Oscar in 2018 and a career achievement Peabody in 2020, among many others awards.

Tyson was often quiet about her personal life. She has stated that she never drank nor smoked, and had been a vegetarian, for the most part, since the 1960s.

In 1969, she co-founded the Dance Theater of Harlem alongside Arthur Mitchell and Karel Shook. Between 1981 and 1989, she was married to jazz musician Miles Davis. She had one daughter from a previous marriage but avoided using her daughter’s real name publicly so as to afford her privacy.

Just days before her death, Tyson released her memoir, “Just As I Am.” In an interview promoting the book on “CBS This Morning,” interviewer Gayle King asked Tyson what she wanted people to remember about her.

“I’ve done my best,” Tyson said.

Juliet Bennett Rylah is a freelance reporter who covers Hollywood and West Hollywood. She can be reached at jbrylah@gmail.com.

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