Cicely Tyson: A journey home

Last Updated 10:14 a.m. ET

(CBS News) Cicely Tyson is an actress whose latest role is all about going home . . .in more ways than one. With Lee Cowan we’ll be going along:

Just outside the small town of Wharton, Texas, sits an old abandoned farmhouse. It’s a relic of an age gone by, forgotten except by time.

Until recently — when Broadway paid a visit.

Academy Award-nominated actress Cicely Tyson came all the way out here not as a tourist, but as a sleuth of sorts, to research her latest role.

“My gratification in working comes from the preparation and the building of the character,” Tyson told Cowan.

Turns out that old farmhouse is a character, too.

Tyson stars in the revival of the 1953 drama, “The Trip to Bountiful.” She play Mother Watts, a woman in the twilight of her life who longs to leave the big city of Houston and return to her childhood home of Bountiful.

Bountiful existed only in the mind’s eye of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Horton Foote.

It was his daughter, Hallie, who guided Tyson on her mission to uncover the subtleties of the role.

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Actress Cicely Tyson walks with Lee Cowan in Wharton, Texas, where playwright Horton Foote was raised.

CBS News


The play came from this land — where her father grew up. Horton Foote was raised in Wharton, and lived there off and on until he died in 2009.

“In here is where he used to write,” Hallie Foote said, showing her father’s office to Tyson and Cowan.

“I am really privileged,” Tyson said.

“He just would have loved you, you were his kind of actor,” said Hallie (an actress herself).

“Well, hopefully I’ll do it justice!”

Out of all the roles Tyson has played, it is this one that haunted her, ever since she first saw the 1986 movie of “The Trip to Bountiful,” starring Geraldine Page.

Page won the Oscar for her role, and Tyson never forgot the performance.

A quarter-century later, when her chance came to play it on stage, she knew she had to make her own trip to Texas to really understand the part.

Was there anything specific she was looking for, asked Cowan. “You’re just waiting for the town to sort of speak to you?”

“I am just absorbing everything that’s here, everything,” Tyson replied.

It’s a long way from her days growing up in Harlem, where her mother — a very religious woman — thought the world of modeling and acting was a den of iniquity, so much so she kicked Tyson out of the house after her daughter landed her first role.

“My mother didn’t talk to me for two years,” Tyson said.

Was that hard on her? “It was hard, but I also knew that what I was feeling was so compelling that nothing was going to stop me.”

And nothing did. For a time she was one of the most talked-about actresses in Hollywood. Her seven-year marriage to jazz great Miles Davis only kept her in the spotlight.

As an actress, she chose her roles carefully, rarely taking on a character unless she felt it contributed something to the national dialogue on civil rights.

“I wanted to address certain issues, and I chose to use my career as my platform,” Tyson said. She did so, she said, by “just simply ruling out what I wouldn’t do, the type that, you know, is great for making money for producers, but does nothing to enhance the race itself, or women.”

Her performance as the wife of a Southern sharecropper in the 1972 film “Sounder” got her an Oscar nomination. And then there was “Roots,” where Tyson played Kunta Kinte’s mother.

How big an impact did that have on her life and her career? “Wow. I don’t even know if I could verbalize it,” Tyson said. “It is the one thing I believe that has touched every single culture or race.”

But she is perhaps most identified with “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.” Her performance won her an Emmy Award for Best Actress in 1974.

Tyson played a former slave who lived to be a 110 years old — long enough to see the Civil Rights movement.

The scene of her sipping from a “white only” water fountain for the very first time remains iconic.

When asked if she believes she has made a difference, Tyson said, “I hope I have. I hope so. I’m told so every day. And that’s very rewarding. It’s very satisfying.”

She’s still trying to make a difference — especially at the Cicely L. Tyson School for the Performing Arts in East Orange, N.J. She put more than her name out front — she’s actively involved in the students’ well-being.

“I come here every chance I get,” she said. “I sometimes teach a master class in acting.”

She’s now back on Broadway for the first time in 30 years — and in the first Broadway production of “The Trip to Bountiful” ever staged with a black family.

That’s a fact not lost on Tyson’s co-star Vanessa Williams, who plays Mother Watts’ daughter-in-law.

“It takes me back to when I was a kid, lying in bed watching TV, and watching her in ‘Miss Jane Pittman,'” Williams told Cowan. “Those were the performances that made we want to be an actress. . . . Her image was part of what educated us about slavery, about Jim Crow, about her experiences as a black woman that she portrayed, you know, beautifully in the pieces that in the work that she did.”

At a recent Sunday service at the East Gate Baptist Church back in Texas, Tyson was again in research mode, taking pictures and shaking hands — something else to take back to Broadway.

Her fans look on her as much as a beacon of social conscience as an award-winning actress. And at 79, Tyson seems quite happy to play both those roles . . . for as long as she can.

When asked if she might ever retire, Tyson replied, “There’s no age limit on this. You just work until you’re 110. Like Jane Pittman!”

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EDITOR’S NOTE: A earlier version of this story stated that the current production of “The Trip to Bountiful” was the first ever staged with an all-black cast. Though the first on Broadway, “Bountiful” was staged with an all-black cast in 2011 by the Cleveland Play House.

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