Meeting Cicely Tyson feels . . . momentous. Not that she's overtly formal. The award-winning actress -- rumored to be 90 -- seems in fact rather funky, sitting in a lounge off her dressing room at the Golden Theatre in a sweater, leather pants and gold-flecked sneakers. (Chanel kicks, for the record.)
The room is as fragrant as a garden, courtesy of a massive bouquet of hydrangeas (sent by Oprah Winfrey). Photos of Tyson, others of James Earl Jones, sit in a pile on a shelf, autographed.
The two legends star in "The Gin Game," D.L. Coburn's 1977 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, which opened in October and runs through Jan. 10. She's Fonsia, he's Weller, two lonely nursing home residents. He teaches her gin rummy. She wins . . . and wins . . . driving him nuts, and their quips and quarrels reveal a lot more than their luck at cards.
Tyson, raised in El Barrio (aka East or Spanish Harlem) and once married to Miles Davis, made a name for herself playing strong women in socially relevant films -- "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pitman" (winning an Emmy Award), "Sounder" and the miniseries "Roots." In recent years she's starred on Broadway in "The Trip to Bountiful" (winning a Tony). She'll receive a Kennedy Center Honor next month.
What's it like for you and James Earl Jones now that you're past the pressures of opening night? Can you relax now?
Oh, yeah. Though . . . frankly speaking, I'm never satisfied. But the marvelous thing about plays is that every single night it's different. If you're really in the moment, things happen. Something new emerges. In "The Blacks," my first big professional show (a landmark Off-Broadway production in the early 1960s), we got rave reviews, and they said, "Oh, boy, this is gonna run a long time," and I thought, "Well, I'll get bored doing the same thing night after night." But once I got onstage and was really in the character -- her name was Virtue -- I remember one night it was like a big light went on. I thought, "Why didn't I see that moment before?"
That must be thrilling.
Wonderful things happen, yes, yes, yes. I initially thought I'd stay in the show maybe three months, then leave. Well . . . I stayed three years. We took it to Venice, to Germany. That play launched avant-garde theater in this country. And every black actor and actress worth their salt came out of that piece.
James Earl Jones was in it.
He played my lover. He's really something -- a consummate artist. But he's also such a beautiful soul. When I heard he was to do this role, I said, "Perfect, it seems written for him."
And you? You usually play tough gals, but Fonsia is . . .
She is the most erratic, elusive character I've ever tackled. Because her personality is . . . it's like . . . a bee or butterfly. In and out. I thought I had her, then I didn't -- I was about to lose it. I got pretty discouraged. I was fighting so hard to get a hook on who she was. Then one day I just let go -- and the director came to me after and said, "You were on fire tonight."
Did it feel different?
Yes. Acting is fascinating . . . you really don't know what you're capable of doing. You don't know till the challenge hits you. And I love a challenge.
I read your parents weren't keen on your becoming an actress.
Are you kidding? [She smiles.] My father yes, but my mother -- no. She thought I was going to live [she imitates her mother's voice] "in the den of iniquity." She said, "You can't live here and do that." So I was ousted.
Did she have a change of heart after seeing your career develop?
Oh, yeah. She realized I wasn't going to discard her . . . training. And when she saw people respond to my work, she began to understand. I was very fortunate to have her live long enough to see the success and benefit by it -- and to hear her say, "I'm proud of you." I think if that had not happened, all this wouldn't mean anything to me at all.
You never know what will motivate you. I was determined to prove her wrong. That energized me.
Congratulations, by the way, on the Kennedy Center Honors. What did you think when you first got the call?
I was speechless. I'm still wondering if it'll actually happen. I mean, it's tantamount to being knighted -- sir or dame. Boy, that's something. I don't know what state I'll be in. I still maintain -- I haven't done anything . . . really.
Um . . . many would disagree.
I just think there's something more for me to do. I don't know what it is. I just have that feeling.