Monday, November 24, 2014

Cicely Tyson Stars in ArtsEmerson's Presentation of Horton Foote's "The Trip To Bountiful" - A Pearl of Great Price

Blair Underwood as Ludie Watts
Cicely Tyson as Mother Watts
Vanessa Williams as Jessie Mae Watts
"The Trip To Bountiful"
Presented by ArtsEmerson
Emerson/Cutler Majestic Theatre
Through December 7
Forgive me if I struggle for words in trying to describe just how transcendent Cicely Tyson is as Mother Watts in Horton Foote's timeless odyssey play "The Trip To Bountiful."  ArtsEmerson has scored another coup in bringing this illustrious production to the stage of the Emerson/Cutler Majestic Theatre.

As I was processing what I had experienced in the moments and hours following the last curtain call of "The Trip To Bountiful," it occurred to me that I had struck gold on two successive nights as an audience member.  On Thursday, I experienced the genius of cellist Yo-Yo Ma as he played with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.  On Friday evening I was transported by the very different genius of Ms. Tyson.  It was like sitting down to a meal of oysters and finding a Pearl of Great Price in two successive mollusks.  What are the chances of that happening?

Upon further reflection, I came to the conclusion that even though Yo-Yo Ma and Cicely Tyson practice very different art forms, the dynamics that explain what makes their performances rise to the level of virtuosity are remarkably similar.  Permit me to plagiarize myself and draw from my reflections on Yo-Yo Ma's recent performance at Symphony Hall.

  • Respect for the Integrity of the Text - Whether playing the works of Bach, Dvorak, Prokofiev or a more modern composer, he respects the composer's intent and applies all of his skill and artistry to offering a legitimate interpretation of the music as intended by the composer.
  • The Quality of His Instrument - Mr. Ma plays a rare Stradivarius cello, a Venetian cello, known as the Montagnana, which was made in 1733 by Antonio Stradivari.  That classic instrument adds a warmth of tone that cannot be achieved with a lesser instrument.
  • His Technical Brilliance - He has spent many more than Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hours perfecting the technical aspects of his craft, and he knows how to extract every nuance of sound from his cello.
  • The Genius of His Artistry - Layered on top of the scaffolding of his technical proficiency are fine brush strokes of interpretation and artistry that transcend the mechanics of making the cello's string vibrate, but also cause a stirring in the soul.
  • His Obvious Joy and Passion For The Music and Its Presentation - While playing or resting on stage , he engages the orchestra members with his smiles, his eyes, his nods, saying, in effect, "We are on this journey together."
  • His Humility and Lack of Pretense - During curtain calls, he always defers to the conductor and orchestra members, acknowledging them, standing with them, sharing the glory.
I would like to examine these same six characteristics as they apply to Ms. Tyson's portrayal of Mother Watts in "The Trip To Bountiful"
  • Respect for the Integrity of the Text - There is a back story that I will relate below that demonstrates how deeply moved Ms. Tyson was when she first saw the film version of "The Trip To Bountiful" starring Geraldine Page in an Oscar-winning performance.  She was moved by the story, and seeks to be faithful to Mr. Foote's vision each time she steps on stage to tell the story.
  • The Quality of The Instrument - In the case of an actor, her instrument is her voice, her body, her soul and her whole person.  Like a rare Stradivarius stringed instrument, Ms. Tyson's instrument has mellowed through the years to produce more rich, warm, lush and subtle tones and overtones.
  • Her Technical Brilliance - A actor friend who accompanied me to the performance commented on the precision with which Ms. Tyson moved her feet to convey different shades of mood and of meaning.  She also modulated her voice and her physical movements to reflect what Mother Watts was thinking, feeling and planning at any given moment.
  • The Genius of Her Artistry - Technique without artistry can feel mechanical and hollow.  Into the empty vessel of technical brilliance she poured the nectar of her je ne sais quoi and her joie de vivre.
  • Her Obvious Joy and Passion For The Telling of This Story - Mother Watts sings hymns - to lift her spirits and to drive her embattled daughter-in-law, Jessie Mae, to distraction.  She dances with elan, she swoons into a near faint at the news of the death of her dear friend.  She wrings every ounce of energy out of her soul in showing us that even at an advanced age, Mother Watts is a woman of deep passion and formidable prowess hiding inside a deceptively frail physical frame.
  • Her Humility and Lack of Pretense - During the final curtain call, she allowed herself to be hoisted in the air and carried off stage by her co-stars, Vanessa Williams and Blair Underwood. She is more Velveteen Rabbit than China Doll. 
Cicely Tyson as Mother Watts
Photo by Joan Marcus

But "The Trip To Bountiful" is not a One Woman Show, so there are other accolades to be accorded. Michael Wilson provides superb direction to this very fine cast.  The Scenic Design of Jeff Cowie is worthy of its own paragraph.  From the curtain that suggests the humble skyline of Houston in the 1950s, to the two Colored Waiting Rooms in the Greyhound stations of Houston and Harrison, Texas, to the pre-Rosa Parks "Back of the Bus" interior that Mother Watts shares with young Thelma, to the dilapidated yet bucolic homestead in Bountiful - each element coalesced to enhance the telling of this powerful story.  The Costume Design of Van Broughton Ramsey, Lighting by Rui Rita and Original Music and Sound Design by John Gromada all contributed their own brush strokes to this living and breathing masterpiece.

I mentioned the character of Thelma, played wonderfully by Jurnee Smottett-Bell.  When Mother Watts finally breaks away from Jessie Mae and Ludie to make her final trip home to tiny Bountiful, Texas, she is joined in the waiting room of the bus terminal and on the first leg of her journey by a young bride whose husband has just left for the military.  The chemistry between these two is the polar opposite of the vitriol that exists between Mother Watts and Jessie Mae, played with gleeful smirking venom by the lovely Vanessa Williams.  Mother Watts and Jessie Mae are no Ruth and Naomi from the Old Testament.  In that heart-warming story, the daughter-in-law so loves and respects her husband's mother that she proclaims, "Whither thou goest I shall go."  If Jessie Mae were to proclaim her intention towards Mother Watts, it would be: "Whither thou goest I shall go . . . and track you down and drag you back to Houston where you belong!"  Poor Ludie is caught in the middle of the two women he loves - his mother, the irresistible force and his wife, the immovable object.  Something's got to give!  Blair Underwood plays Ludie with a subdued mixture of quiet dignity, befuddlement, resignation and wistfulness.  Arthur French as the bus station attendant in Harrison makes a strong impression.  Additional ensemble members include Devon Abner, Pat Bowie, Wade Dooley, Russell Edge, Dalila Ali Rajah, Keiana Richard, Duane Shepard, Sr. and Desean Kevin Terry.

While the cast supporting Ms. Tyson are very fine actors, they are faithful acolytes at the altar as she presides over an act of theatrical transubstantiation - changing the savory wine of Mr. Foote's text into the life blood of a story of resurrection and redemption.

I promised a back story about Ms. Tyson's connection to this role.  When she saw the film version of "The Trip To Bountiful," she was so moved by Geraldine Page's performance, that she went to see her agent and said, "If you can find me a role like that, I will gladly retire.  Find me my Bountiful!"  Many years later, Horton Foote's daughter approached her and told her that they would be mounting an all-black production of the play that had been originally written about a working class white family.  She informed Ms. Tyson that her father had been a great admirer of her work, and it would be unthinkable to cast anyone else in the role of Mother Watts.  Finally, Cicely Tyson had her "Trip To Bountiful," for which she won the Tony in 2013 for the performance that she is now reprising here in Boston.

The play will be in Boston through December 7th.  To say that "The Trip To Bountiful" is a MUST SEE would be to understate the case.  I promise that there will not be another theatrical event in the next few months more worthy of your entertainment dollar than this play and this performance. Purchase a chance to observe the luster of this Pearl of Great Price.

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