Working in the Theatre: Cicely Tyson


[music] As children, there were three of us. We were never introduced to the entertainment world as such. We spent most of our time in Church. I played the organ; I played the pianos; I
sang in the choir; I taught Sunday school. So did my sister Emily, my brother, of course,
was able to sneak out and play marbles in the street. [Laughter] I am a firm believer in divine guidance. Consequently, I don’t think it’s something
I chose to do, but that I was chosen to do. I was simply walking along the street one
day, and someone stopped me and ask me whether or not I was a model. I wasn’t, I was working as a secretary at the time. He said “If you aren’t, you should be.” I said, “How do you do that?” “Well you, register at a school. Then you get a certificate. And then you make the rounds of the various modeling
agencies and someone will sign you.” And it was while I was out one day on a modeling
interview with the editor there, her name was Mildred Smith, and as I left there was
a woman sitting in the outer office whose name was Evelyn Davis. She went into Ms. Smith and she said to her,
“She looks just right for a role in a movie that I just interviewed for,” and then she
gave me a call, she said, “Listen, I have an interview scheduled for you this afternoon,
it’s for a movie.” I said to her, “I don’t know anything about movies. Thank you very much, but I’m not going to
go there and make a fool of myself.” She kept calling me, and I finally said to
her, “Please don’t call me anymore. You’re going to make me lose my job.” I hung up the phone and she called me back. She said, “Just tell me you’ll go over
and see this man. He just wants to see you.” I said, “Okay.” His name was Warren Coleman, and he was a
former actor who was very unhappy with the way his career had gone simply because he was a black
man and he wanted to form a company to do films for black consumption, mainly. He said, “Would you want to be an actress?”
and I said, “I don’t know. I don’t know anything about it.” But I suppose that instinctively I did the right things. I truly believe that that was a revelation
to me of what talent really is. Talent, to me, is a thing that allows you
to function correctly in a given set of circumstances. You just happen to do the right thing. And he said, “The job is yours.” That was the beginning of my career. That’s how it actually started. My mother, who told me that I couldn’t live
in her house “and do that, whatever that was” when I told her I was going to be an
actress, and I said, “Okay.” I had a girl friend who had a job, working
for the telephone company, and she wore the same dress size that I wore, and so when I had
an interview I would borrow one of her dresses and I went to live with her in her apartment. [Music] I started with Strasberg, and I was very concerned
about being there because all of the big stars were already established: Marilyn Monroe,
and people like that. I looked up and one day there she was sitting
next to me and I said, “I don’t belong here,” so I stopped going. They called me and asked me why I was not
attending classes and I said, “Because you put me with a group of professionals. I’m not a professional. I’m a beginner. I like learning things from the ground up. “Okay, come back.” I went back, they put me in a beginner’s
class and I was very comfortable there because I was beginning to understand what this acting
thing was all about. [Music] I got word that there was a teacher who taught at
a Performing Arts. She was about to launch her directorial career,
and she chose a piece entitled “Dog of the Moon,” and she was looking for a young woman
to play the lead. Her studio was on the fourth floor of a walkup. I was so terrified, I was so scared, that
I started screaming her name from the time I entered the building all the way up the stairs. [Laughter] Excuse me, all the way up the steps
until I landed on her floor and she was standing at her door trying to figure out who this
maniac was that was screaming her name all the way up the floor and she said, “Are you Ms. Tyson?” I shook my head yes. “What’s the matter?” “I’m scared.” [Laughter] I said to her. She said, “Come on in.” And she spoke with a very deep voice and that
even frightened me more, right? So, I read the character and she read the
male lead. When I was finished, she said, “Would you
like to try this?” and I said, “Yes.” That particular play was chosen to appear
in an annual event and they chose a scene from Dog of the Moon, to appear on Broadway
in Talent 59. And that particular event brought out all
of the producers, directors, and casting agents who were looking for new talent and we were
fortunate enough to be chosen. And from that, I began to get calls from agents,
from people who were producing plays, movies. [Music] My favorite stage memory: I was rehearsing a play, Jean Genet’s
“The Blacks,” Off-Broadway. A huge success. And it is the play I maintain, that started
avant-garde theater in this country. That show ran for three years and I tell you:
it was a lesson. I was doing a show with Roscoe Lee Brown in
summer stock and we got the call to come do “The Blacks” in California. So, we went on to complete the show
that we were doing and after the show we went out and had a bite to eat and he said, “Well what do
you think, what I would like to do is I would like to play her absolutely bald. When the evening came for the performance
and Ivan Dixon came who was the director said, “Places, please.” I took the scarf off in my dressing room and I
came down the steps. Maya Angelou played the White Queen and she
is very tall—she was very tall. And she turned around and she looked up at me
and all the heads turned, just automatically, one right after the other, nobody said anything. Someone said, “Call Ivan.” Ivan came running backstage, took one look
at me, and he said “Well, ladies, you have your work cut out for you tonight.” And we went on with the show. It was a very important step in my life. [Music] When we got the reviews and we knew it was
a huge success, I said, “Well, I don’t know if I could do a show for more than three months, I’ll stay for three months and then I’ll leave. And go do something else. Well, it lasted for three years. During that three-year period, I did about three different shows. I went off and did another show, came back. Went off, did another show, came back. And so did everyone, it was like a home base. [Music] I was born on the South Side of Chicago. I was born black and a female. I was born in a depression after one world
war and I came into my adolescence during another. And while I was still in my teens, the first
Atom bombs were dropped on human beings. I have personally been a victim of physical
attack, which was the offspring of racial and political hysteria. [Narrating] I think it’s presumptuous of me to say that
the work that I have done has had some impact. And I frequently never find that I am anywhere
near the character until I feel that I have fitted into her skin. That allows me to move with her, physically,
mentally, spiritually, and otherwise. When I get to that point, I can begin to talk
because then I know why she says certain things the way she says it. I did a tour across the country when I was
promoting Sounder, the first major movie that I did. In LA when I was being interviewed by a young
woman from a major newspaper, and she told me that she did not believe the love scene
that took place in Sounder between Nathan and Rebecca, those were the character’s names. I was a little taken aback because I didn’t
quite understand what she was getting at and I said, “What do you mean?” So, she simply said that she did not think
that black people made love or had- oh, I don’t know where she was going with it. I said to her, “Do you realize what you’re saying? You’re saying that we are not human beings.” She said, “Oh, well, you know I don’t know them.” She’s talking to me, a black woman. “I don’t know them. I don’t go- I never went to school with them. I never lived with—I never lived in their neighborhoods. I don’t know them. I don’t know anything about them.” I said, “ You’re living during the Civil
Rights Era, where people, human beings, are being hosed down and chased by dogs and shot and killed. Okay? And jailed. And you don’t know anything about us? Your guilt lies in your innocence as far as I’m concerned.” And that was it. It was those kinds of things that made me
realize that I could not afford the luxury of just being an actress. I realize that there are a number of issues
that had to address—that I had to address. That I was not one to wave a placard, a marcher
up and down the street, and yell and scream—I had to find a way to address them, and I chose
my career as my platform. I may be poor, but I am somebody. I may be on welfare, but I am somebody. I may be in jail, but I am somebody. [Applause] I had made a promise to myself that I would
never do anything to degrade myself as a woman and as a black woman. That was my commitment and so I choose things
that will educate people to the fact that we are human beings. The color of our skin does not determine who we are. We are born into this universe just like any
other race of people. As a result should be treated, just by the mere
virtue of being a human being, as a human being. But you know, when I cut my hair off, I got stacks
of mail in bushel bags, condemning me from blacks and whites because we were so embarrassed about the texture
of our hair. And today, hey, you wear it wherever, however you want it – and that was my point. Today it’s no longer an issue. Women feel they can wear their hair as high
as the sky if they wanted to or cut it off and go bald, that’s your choice. That’s your personal choice, right. The color of our skin is no longer an issue,
in some places. I don’t know what’s going to happen in
the future, but right now, it is not. We’re prouder than ever of who we are, what
we are, and why we are. And that’s as it should be. We’re honored that tonight, Ms. Cicely Tyson
has come home from Broadway. [Music] [Applause] You’re a native New Yorker? Bred and born. Which explains all that energy because I have
a pet theory about that. I think that New York theater has always been a source
of energy both to actors and to the theatrical scene nationally. That’s how all of us feel who started our
careers here in New York. And for some of us, most of us, I suspect. There were many years of knocking on doors,
pounding pavements, studying, learning, rehearsing, years at working hard at a craft that we all
love. [Narrating] I lived to hear my mother say, one day, “I
am so proud of you.” Before she passed, I think if she had not
said that to me, none of it would mean anything. I think she was my source of energy that drove
me throughout my career, because I was determined to prove her wrong. [Music] You see your son and your daughter-in-law came in just after you left Oh no I saw them coming that’s why I left so fast [Audience laughing] What is it all about? I’m still trying to find out. I still study, I’m still searching. I think that once you ever get to the point, once one ever gets to the point where they really feel that they know it, they’re lost because that allows you to stop searching. To stop trying to get to the essence of what
a role or what a person really is. I think that if you continue to search then
you will always find a deeper meaning. Oprah has a way of saying, “What do you
sure that you know?” and my answer to that is that “I am sure that I know nothing.” And I find that out everyday

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