Cicely Tyson, Stereotype Shattering Actress, Dies At 96
Actress Cicely Tyson, who spent decades portraying strong black women on stage and on screen, died on Thursday at age 96.
Tyson was groundbreaking for refusing to accept roles that demeaned black people, urging her African-American colleagues to hold the same standards. She stood firm in the idea that no matter if the character is poor or downtrodden, African-Americans should always be portrayed with dignity.
In her life, Tyson won three Emmys and other awards from civil rights and women’s groups. At age 88, she became the oldest person to win a Tony for her role in a revival of Horton Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful. She won an honorary Oscar at 93, was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame in 2018 and into the Television Hall of Fame in 2020. She won a career achievement Peabody Award in 2020.
Tyson was born on Dec. 19 1924 in East Harlem. She was the youngest of three children and her parents were immigrants from the Caribbean Island of Nevis. After graduating high school, Tyson became a model, working for Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar among others. In the 1940s, she attended the Actors Studio.
One of her first major roles was as Stephanie Virtue, a prostitute in Jean Genet’s The Blacks in 1961. The show was the longest-running Off Broadway drama of the decade, running for 1,408 performances. Tyson played the role for two years and won a Vernon Rice Award in 1962 for her performance.
After continuing to play minor or supporting characters on stage and on screen, in 1972 Tyson portrayed the role of Rebecca in the film Sounder. Rebecca is the wife of a Louisiana sharecropper who is imprisoned for stealing food for his children.
“The story in ‘Sounder’ is a part of our history, a testimony to the strength of humankind,” Tyson told The New York Times in 1972. “Our whole black heritage is that of struggle, pride and dignity. The Black woman has never been shown on the screen this way before.”
Some of Tyson’s most iconic roles include a former slave in the CBS special The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, in 1974, Kunta Kinte’s mother in a mini-series based on Alex Haley’s Roots in 1977, Coretta Scott King in the 1978 NBC mini-series King, Harriet Tubman in A Woman Called Moses in 1978 and a Chicago teacher devoted to poor children in The Marva Collins Story in 1981.
Tyson married jazz musician Miles Davis in 1981. The couple divorced in 1989.
Throughout her career, Tyson was featured on the covers of Ebony, Essence and Jet magazines. Donning an African turban and caftan, she became an idol of the Black is Beautiful movement.
In 2013, Tyson returned to Broadway, playing Carrie Watts in The Trip to Bountiful, which earned her a Tony award. She participated in a Broadway revival of The Gin Game in 2015-2016.
President Barak Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016.
This month, her memoir Just As I Am came out.
“I try always to be true to myself. I learned from my mom: ‘Don’t lie ever, no matter how bad it is. Don’t lie to me ever, ok? You will be happier that you told the truth.’ That has stayed with me, and it will stay with me for as long as I’m lucky enough to be here,” Tyson told The New York Times in an interview prior to her memoir release.
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