You read that correctly. About two decades ago, Cicely Tyson, the recipient of three Primetime Emmy Awards, four Black Reel Awards, one Screen Actors Guild Award, one Tony Award (at the age of 88!), an honorary Academy Award, a Peabody Award, a Kennedy Center honor and the Presidential Medal of Freedom bestowed on her by President Barak Obama for a career spanning over seven decades, attended the same acting class as I did. At the time, I was a 30-something professional NYC actress with a handful of nice credits on her resumé, but nothing remotely close to those of the Legend that was Ms. Tyson.
I regret not sharing with Ms. Tyson that my mother and I had learned to speak English AND understand the history of the United States of America, viscerally, by watching the stories of slavery and racism told by the grace-filled performances of Ms. Tyson in her early films.
My mother, my older brother and I emigrated to the States a short time after my father, in 1969. At that time, none of us spoke English, but my brother and I were glued to the television while my mother cooked and cleaned, and while my father worked several jobs to feed us and pay the rent. In almost every photo from those days, my brother and I are posing in front of a small black and white television – the picture frozen on either an image from “I Love Lucy” or “The Honeymooners.” My brother and I even created our own language — something between our native Italian and whatever we heard on the TV set. My father was devastated when he realized his children spoke neither Italian nor English, so he sent us to a nearby pre-school to learn English. Thankfully, our young brains picked it up quickly, and by the time Cicely Tyson graced our television screen, I was prepared to hang on her every word.
Two of her movies that affected me down to my bones, were “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” from 1974, and “Roots,” which was a series that aired in 1977. My mother recently shared this memory with me, in her accented English, “you know the FIRST time I understand all the English on television was Kunta Kinte – you remember that movie? I understand everything – everything they say, everything they do…I love Lucille too…ma no the same.”
Kunta Kinte refers to Levar Burton’s character in “Roots.” Cicely Tyson played his mother, Binta, in that series. I was 7 when I first saw her as “Jane Pittman” and 10 years old when I watched “Roots.” Her performances were devastatingly beautiful in both of those landmark films, and have stayed with me for decades.
Now…back to that acting class:
Around twenty plus years ago, the visionary, J Michael Miller, decided that I would make an excellent acting teacher. I resisted, kicking and screaming, but he finally convinced me over a very boozy lunch. To prepare me, Michael generously treated me to a year’s worth of classes at his studio, The Actor’s Center. The late award-winning, genius director, actor and dean of Yale Drama, Lloyd Richards, was teaching a master acting class, and I was to be one of his students.
It is always both terrifying and exhilarating to take a class while you’re a professional in the field – on the one hand, I felt vulnerable, thinking I might be outed as a fraud, but on the other hand, I was able to absorb everything Lloyd was teaching us. In contrast to my grad school days, my facility as an actor and human was so much greater at this point, that I was able to DO and understand what Lloyd asked of me in the room.
I can’t remember who the other students were, but I do remember, in the far corner of the room, sitting with a laptop on her knees, typing copious notes, was the glorious Ms. Tyson. She was tiny, unassuming and always wore a beautiful scarf over her head, but to quote Levar Burton, “She was royalty with a capital “R.”
She didn’t participate in presenting monologues or scenes, but her bright presence was known. During one particular class, a student actress stopped mid-monologue, turned to Ms. Tyson, and tearfully apologized because “her character” was a racist and used derogatory language. Ms. Tyson looked at her incredulously: she and Lloyd Richards told her to simply play the truth of her character. The weepy actress was told to commit fully to the character she was playing and to the character’s given circumstances, and stop wasting her OWN time. Simple, direct and effective teaching. And kind.
Although Lloyd Richards and Cicely Tyson didn’t suffer fools, they were both tremendously kind.
How did I get so lucky? Ms. Cicely Tyson and Mr. Lloyd Richards – two of the greatest artists of their generations in the same room. I learned so much from witnessing their Grace and Wisdom not only in the classroom, but from their groundbreaking work on stage, film and television. Lloyd Richards passed away in 2006. And today, the world mourns Cicely Tyson. How I wish I had told her in that moment, that miraculous moment when we shared the same space, how much her extraordinary artistry, that was always filled with grace and profound humanity, had moved me to become an artist and taught me as a young immigrant girl how to understand better her adopted country. Thank you, Lady Cicely Tyson.
With love and great admiration, your forever fan.