When Cicely Tyson was asked to star in “The Trip to Bountiful” on Broadway this spring, she knew some people might regard it as a marketing ploy. Her role was originally conceived as a white character, after all, with Geraldine Page winning an Academy Award in the 1985 film version.
But at Sunday’s Tony Awards, Tyson made history with her performance. Not only did she become the oldest person to win a Tony, at the age of 88, but she and another black actress — Patina Miller in the musical “Pippin” — earned Tonys for roles that were not created for black women. Such performances, like Audra McDonald’s in the 1994 Broadway revival of “Carousel,” are very rare.
“I’ve never seen characters as ‘black’ or ‘white,’ and I believe people who saw my casting as a gimmick — well, that’s their limitation,” Tyson said on Monday. “Because I’m black doesn’t make me any less human. The Tonys honored all of us for playing our characters as human beings.”
While casting minority actors in roles that would traditionally go to white performers has been common for decades, as a way to offer fresh perspectives on a classic or to recognize an actor’s talents (or, yes, to sell tickets), the awards for Tyson and Miller helped ensure that these Tonys would be remembered: African-Americans won four of the eight acting categories.
This has happened before, in 1982, yet that year three of the winners were in “Dreamgirls,” a vehicle for black actors loosely based on the stories of black musicians. (The fourth winner was Zakes Mokae as a South African servant in Athol Fugard’s “Master Harold … and the Boys.”)
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