Classy, elegant actress Cicely Tyson, dead at 96

Herb Boyd | 2/2/2021, 12:47 p.m.
Classy, elegant actress Cicely Tyson, dead at 96
Cicely Tyson in her various film and television roles Photos used with permission/Design by Amanda Ulloa

On Thursday evening, not too long after Cicely Tyson’s image as Tyler Perry’s mother in “Alex Cross” began to fade, it was announced that the great actress had made her transition. Immediately, fresh memories of her film and television career emerged, particularly “Sounder” and “The Autobiography of Jane Pittman,” and those images are indelible and can never fade.

Like Nana Mama in “Alex Cross,” which was produced in 2012, Tyson’s role was radiant with the dignity and grace she brought to most of her portrayal’s, each invested with her regal manner and concern to represent the positive aspects of the Black experience.

Tyson’s death—she was 96—was announced by her manager Larry Thompson who said her transition was peaceful and asked that people allow the family their privacy. Much of that privacy had been, to some extent, revealed through the variety of performances she brought to the stage, screen, and television. Her passing comes as “Alex Cross,” is being aired on Showtime, and follows the recent release of her memoir, Just As I Am. According to Thompson, Tyson “thought of her new memoir as a Christmas tree decorated with all the ornaments of her personal and professional life. Today she placed the last ornament, a Star, on top of the tree.”

It will be interesting to see if she can capture those glorious events when her magnetism glowed before the camera or emotions flooded the stage. Some of us are old enough and lucky enough to have seen her in Jean Genet’s “The Blacks,” in 1961 where she shared the stage with several other future luminaries, including Louis Gossett, Jr., Raymond St. Jacques, Roxie Roker, Roscoe Lee Browne and others. Two years later she was featured in “Trumpets of the Lord” with Al Freeman, Jr. and then several more memorable roles on and off Broadway before her captivating appearances on television.

Tyson was fifty years old when the portrayed Jane Pittman in 1974, a television production based on Ernest Gaines’ novel. Her recounting of Pittman’s life perhaps prepared her for recalling her own remarkable days, though, Tyson’s life had its share of drama and trauma it cannot be compared to what Miss Pittman endured. Her reveries of Pittman earned Tyson an Emmy, which was one of three as well as a Tony, and secured her prominence. What she did for Gaines, Tyson would do for Alex Haley’s “Roots,” as the main character, Kunta Kinte’s mother; and that classy, authentic bearing resonated in her capturing the essence of educator Marva Collins and civil rights legend Coretta Scott King, to say nothing of Harriet Tubman.

Born in Harlem in 1924, the same place and year of James Baldwin’s birth, Tyson was the daughter of parents whose roots were in the Caribbean. Before she took to acting she was a model and at one time worked as secretary for American Red Cross. Her lovely face was often seen in the pages of Jet, Ebony and Essence magazines. A few of her early stage accomplishes are cited above but there was also a number of cameo roles on television, most notably “I Spy,” “Nurses,” and “The Bill Cosby Show.” It was Cosby who accompanied her when she married jazz immortal Miles Davis. Theirs were a tumultuous seven years together. “Whenever she came to the Village Vanguard,” said attorney Robert Van Lierop, then a waiter at the night club, “Miles would leave her in my company while he was on the bandstand. She was the epitome of class and elegance, and a good tipper, too.” On more than one occasion she talked about going to a club on Miles’ birthday to hear a rendition of “My Funny Valentine,” marking her as an unrepentant romantic.

Tyson is remembered for insisting on taking roles that would not demean or disgrace Black culture, especially its women. She caused quite an uproar in the sixties when she preferred to wear her hair natural, and this coif was worn with pride and honor in her role as Jane Foster on “East Side/West Side.” On the cover of her memoir there is no Afro, no wig, she is bald.

Even this image seems to convey an openness, a promise to be forthcoming in practically everything, though it will be curious to read what she has to say about her years with Miles or the treatment she received in Hollywood. To be sure, Tyson will cover her years as a star and one of the most active consummate actresses in movie history, and who can forget her supporting role in the 1984 miniseries “Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All,” which earned her an Emmy.

When asked how she wanted to be remembered, Tyson said “as a woman who squared her shoulders in the service of Black women, as one who made us walk taller and envision greater for ourselves. I want to know that I did the very best that I could with what God gave me—just as I am.” And the world cannot ask for anymore.