Vanessa Williams on her Broadway role in 'The Trip to Bountiful'

Vanessa Williams stars in "The Trip to Bountiful"

Vanessa Williams stars in "The Trip to Bountiful" with Cicely Tyson and Cuba Gooding Jr. at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre in New York City. (Credit: Joan Marcus)

After celebrating her birthday last month and proudly proclaiming that 50 is fabulous, Vanessa Williams returns to Broadway Tuesday night for the first time in 10 years in Horton Foote's "The Trip to Bountiful," opening at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre. In the play, directed by Michael Wilson, Williams plays Jessie Mae Watts, daughter-in-law to Cicely Tyson's Carrie Watts, a widow who escapes her family confines to return to her hometown of Bountiful. The play also features Cuba Gooding Jr. and Condola Rashad.

Williams had her Broadway debut in 1994 in "Kiss of the Spider Woman" and appeared in "Into the Woods" in 2002 and "Sondheim on Sondheim" in 2010. People will recall that she won and lost her Miss America title in 1983 amid scandal. More recently, TV viewers know her from her fiery television roles in "Desperate Housewives," "666 Park," and, most notably, as Wilhelmina Slater in "Ugly Betty." Her new movie, Tyler Perry's "Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor," is in theaters now.

A Grammy, Tony and Emmy Award nominee, Williams, a Chappaqua resident, spoke with Newsday Westchester last Friday.


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Happy belated birthday! Did you do anything special?

My mom threw me surprise brunch at 42 in White Plains at the Ritz. It was beautiful ... my kids flew in, and some of my closest girlfriends.

Sounds fabulous! Speaking of, besides "fabulous," what does 50 feel like?

It doesn't feel much different than 49. I feel empowered, courageous and settled. Life is great, and I'm loving it.

Tell me about the role of Jessie Mae.

Jessie Mae is married to Ludie Watts - they live in a two-room apt in Houston in '53. It's a story about her quest to go back one more time before her time comes. Jessie is plainspoken and says exactly how she feels, and is terribly frustrated because she's constantly on the lookout for her mother-in-law, who's trying to escape. She's been married to her husband for 15 years, but no kids.

Do you relate to her at all?

Actually, I'm nothing like her. But I understand her frustration and her wanting to be in control of a situation she can't always control. I haven't had to live with any of my mother-in-laws in tight quarters, but my own mother is very forthright in her approach to life.

Performing on Broadway is grueling! How do you stay sane?

Oh, I'm used to it.

What's better, your experience on Broadway or on TV?

Cicely Tyson is such a treat . . . she was one of the actresses I saw growing up and made me want to be an actress. Cecily's enthusiasm . . . I mean, she hasn't been on Broadway in 30 years, and audiences are giving standing ovations every night. You can't beat that.

Is Cuba Gooding Jr. as lively as he looks?

He's very enthusiastic, and it's his first time doing this, so it's nice to show him the ropes.

Ever get stage fright, even after all these years?

Sure! That's the thing about live theater, you never know what's going to happen. You get nervous, things frighten you and throw you off your game, but that's why you choose to be in this profession.

And what does it take to make it after you've chosen it?

Talent, training and a good team.

Have your kids come to see the show yet?

One of my youngest daughters saw it the first night and said she liked it. Now, she's back in L.A. My other two are coming for opening night and my son will see it when he finishes college. I'm lucky to have my family be willing to miss me when I have to work and uproot themselves when I need them.

Anything that might surprise us?

Those who know Horton might expect an overly sentimental play that might be very serious and a tearjerker. You'll cry at the end, but there's a lot of laughter in this production. Audiences black, white, young and old have been singing along, which has never happened before. It's been 60 years since the original play was done on Broadway in the same theater at the Henry Miller and it's never been back on Broadway.

What have the biggest crowd pleasers been so far?

At the end of the show, Mother Watts has to produce a check . . . During our first week, she went to get the check but couldn't find it in her bag, so we all had to improvise our lines as if she had and the audience loved it.

Tom Cruise was here a couple of days ago that sent people afire. He sent me flowers the next day.

Oooh, did he come to see you?

No, he came to see Cuba.

Is there a special someone bringing you flowers, or are you single and fabulous?

[Laughing] Single and fabulous.

"The Trip to Bountiful" is playing at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre for a 14-week limited engagement. For tickets, go to www.thetriptobountifulbroadway.com.

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