My first memory of Cicely Tyson was in “Sounder.” I only knew her from the screen back then. I was 9, and there were only a few television stations. I remember watching it at the foot of my parents’ bed because they had the big color TV. I was mesmerized by her strength and
I saw her in “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” which again was an extraordinary transformation for her as an actor and a pivotal moment in terms of Black history.
I got to work with her on “The Trip to Bountiful” [in the 2013 Broadway revival and the 2014 TV movie film], and there’s this tremendous fortitude and presence when she entered a room. She was a social worker coming in, and she told me to “breathe” because I was completely gobsmacked by her, but she helped me focus.
I saw her at events. But when you do theater, you have a long period of rehearsal together, and you’re doing eight shows a week, but it becomes a family. My favorite memory was each night, we’d do our collective bow together. On Broadway, it was Cuba Gooding Jr., and
in L.A., it was Blair Underwood, and we’d pick her up. Because she was so light, she’d say, “Wheeee! That was a good one.”
She showed up for every show because she was extremely disciplined, and she knew that the audience was there to see her, and she loved being back onstage after 30 years. This was a role that she wanted to do.
She talked about her mother a lot. She had tremendous faith and would surrender to what God had laid out for her. She had that responsibility given what her gifts were, and there was a sense of calm and serenity with that: She was doing what she was meant to do.
Every time I saw her, I’d say, “Mother Watts,” which was the name of the character that she played. She treated me as a daughter, even though I was the kind of bratty stepdaughter in the play. She loved my kids and was generous to anyone I wanted to bring by and introduce. She said to my mother, “You raised a beautiful daughter.”
I watched her process. She was a strict vegetarian for years, and I think that contributed to her longevity. She didn’t use a cane, her eyes were bright and she was completely present. And after being a vegetarian for almost 45 years, she said, “I’m going to introduce chicken into my diet because that’s what Mother Watts would be eating.” It was completely Method and her diving into every inch of the role.
One of my favorite moments was when we were on Broadway during intermission. I heard a squeal. She had a great laugh. She said to a man, “What are you doing out here?! This is the intermission.” And it was Jesse Jackson, who was trying to sneak backstage and pay her an homage.
I felt very protective of her. I don’t know whether she was an elder that I looked up to my whole life. A young P.A. would call her “Cicely.” I would say, “You call her ‘Ms. Tyson.’ You’re talking to a legend here.”
—As told to Jazz Tangcay
Vanessa Williams is a singer, actor and producer.