Viola wrote this great piece for Vanity Fair about the talented Ms. Tyson whom she is not only co-stars with on HTGAWM but also her friend.
With a career spanning six decades and dozens of film credits, honorary Oscar winner Cicely Tyson is a bastion of Hollywood achievement. Viola Davis looks back at a lifetime of brilliant performances.
s. Cicely Tyson is elegance personified. She is excellence. She is courage. When I think of her, I think of the Stevie Wonder song: “Show me how to do like you. Show me how to do it.”
The first time I encountered her I was a little girl living in a tenement building in Central Falls, Rhode Island, where we had electricity in only one part of the apartment, and hooked our television into an extension cord we ran from one side to the other. There, sitting on the floor with my sisters, I watched the made-for-TV movie The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, in which she depicts a woman’s life from her enslavement on a southern plantation at about age 23, to her joining the civil rights movement at nearly 110. When my sister said, “That’s the same actress,” I couldn’t believe it. Back then, I lived in a sea of white faces, onscreen and off, and here was this woman who looked like me—and she was performing magic.
Good actors, through very hard work, are able to transform for a role, but Ms. Tyson—the Harlem-born daughter of immigrants, discovered in her teens by an Ebony magazine photographer—transcends that. She embodies the depth of a character, her history, her memory. It was impossible not to fall in love with everything she did, this chocolate girl with a short fro fighting to portray a wide-ranging humanity too rarely afforded to actresses of color: our sexuality, our anger, our joy, our wildness. As a teenager I watched her heart-rending performances in her Academy Award-nominated role in Sounder, and alongside Richard Pryor in Bustin’ Loose, and as a Chicago schoolteacher in The Marva Collins Story. Later, when I was a student at a Circle in the Square Theatre workshop, I came across photos of her on Broadway in the 60s, sharing the stage with Alvin Ailey and Claudia McNeil in Tiger Tiger Burning Bright, and shining in Sidney Poitier’s staging of Carry Me Back to Morningside Heights.
When I was cast as Annalise in ABC’s How to Get Away With Murder, I could think of no one other than Ms. Tyson to play her mother. Those first scenes we filmed together were more poignant than I could have imagined. There I was sitting on the floor like a little girl again, no wig, no makeup, and there was the then-91-year-old Ms. Tyson behind me, all grace and grit, her strong hands parting my hair and scratching my scalp the way hundreds of thousands of black mothers have done for their daughters; the way mine did for me.
A few years ago she told me a story about how, when she played Jane Foster on East Side/West Side with her own short hair, almost 50 years before I first bared my own on network television, she would get a boatload of mail every week—a boatload, she kept saying that word—from African American women who said she was a disgrace to the race, wearing her nappy hair and looking ugly on screen. “You also took that wig off, and you also got a boatload of messages,” she said to me. “But they were all positive.” Those famous Shakespeare lines comes to mind: “O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention.” Ms. Tyson has always been my muse, leading me down this path of life, holding the lantern, paving the way.