Cicely Tyson. I remember when she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress when I was still in school for Sounder (1972). Yet it wasn't until the Academy Awards ceremony held in 2002, some 30 years later that an African-American actress for the first time ever took home that little man for Best Actress, and it was Halle Berry for Monster's Ball (2001), not Tyson.
I remember too when Tyson married jazz trumpeter extraordinaire Miles Davis (now in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) on my November 26 birthday in 1981. I had just passed the bar exam and was one of only four women attorneys working at a 60-attorney law firm in Chicago.
On June 9, this coming Sunday, which is also my mother's birthday up in heaven, it's a different type of awards ceremony. To honor the best of the best on Broadway, the Tony Awards. Cicely Tyson has been nominated for Best Actress there, too. So, how bountiful will the voters be?
Anyone who has ever had the opportunity, or wished for it, to revisit their childhood home will recognize themselves in Cicely Tyson's joyfully nuanced performance in Horton Foote's The Trip to Bountiful playing at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre. How can you not?
It happened to me twice. The first time in the '90s, when my mother was still alive, we were in Cleveland when the Indians seemed as if they were going to the World Series every October. Big Tribe fan my dad, had passed away a few years earlier. Visiting from Florida, we were driving down Brookpark Road one evening, and I said to my mom, "Let's stop by the old house on W. 44th Street!" The house where I had spent the first eight years of my life as the oldest child of five. So, we screwed up our courage to knock on the door one early evening as dusk was setting in. A middle-aged man lived there alone, and answered the door in his long johns. It was a warm summer night. And he let us in.
Everything was in a state of disarray. But we didn't care. No camera with us. It was an impromptu visit. We rushed to the attic upstairs in the white bungalow with then blue shutters that my father had converted into bedrooms, putting up beautiful yellowish knotty pine walls. Dad lovingly built into those walls dresser drawers for us kids to put our clothes and toys in, and in one bedroom with no window possible being an attic space, he put up poles to let air in, instead of constructing a wall. Looking a little bit like a jail cell, but we kids loved it. I don't think anyone ever claimed it as their room though. We just liked looking at it from the outside in, mind you.
Blonde wood for furniture was popular in those days. I remember my little child's desk and matching chair of blonde wood. I would sit there doing my homework, what little homework I had from kindergarten through third grade after which time we moved to a far west Cleveland suburb nearer to NASA where my dad car pooled every day to work with four other NASA guys. Thursday, was our day with no car because that's when it was dad's turn to drive. Most families could only afford one car.
My oldest brother and I had twin beds up there in that converted attic space where we would dream aloud about what we were going to be and do when we grew up. Mom and I going back to the old house, were relieved the knotty pine had amazingly not been destroyed in all the intervening years. Thankfully still in the pristine condition it had been in when we moved out.
Then mom and I inspected the basement where my father had laid down tile and painted the walls, making an unfinished basement into a rec room (a recreational or TV room) as was the fashion for basements in the 50's and 60's. My Uncle Clarence, a commercial artist, had painted a mural on the basement wall of my grandmother Laura's house on Merl Avenue in Cleveland. My Aunt Sarah had a mural on her basement wall, too, on Priscilla in Parma. Artist unknown. Those murals were in style if you were lucky enough to get one.
Television was just getting started. Ours was black and white with rabbit ears (an antenna) and barely three channels to choose from. No cable or even PBS back then. But it was all free TV. Color was making its debut but the resolution on the early sets wasn't every good. Everything seemed to come out red and green if you weren't careful.
Dad had a big desk down there plopped next to a huge standalone freezer. We all piled into the station wagon one Saturday and took a day trip to a place called Portion Control to buy a quarter of a cow for the new huge freezer.
Our basement with dad's desk by the freezer which was next to the wash tubs, also served as dad's study. I would come down there with my math book, begging for help with math story problems which I never could seem to master. Dad had all kinds of candid shots he had taken of us kids covering that army desk of his, placed underneath a hard plastic see-through cover to protect them.
He was studying for his master's degree in mechanical engineering at Case Tech (now Case Western Reserve University) in the evenings while raising with my mom five noisy children who built tents in the living room out of sofa cushions and bed sheets as they played cowboys and Indians. Those were my four younger brothers, that is. I made mud pies on the teeny porch in our front yard. Sometimes my oldest brother would make them with me.
I had my favorite dolls, Barbie and Midge, Barbie's best friend. And Betsy Wetsy. The first Barbie wore a one-piece strapless black and white striped bathing suit (a tribute to black and white television sets, perhaps?) with a long blonde ponytail hanging down the back of her neck.
Watching as a family the animated cartoon, The Flintstones on the couch in the basement using special wooden bowls our parents were given as a wedding present with slabs of butter and salted popcorn popped by mom in a big ole frying pan over the stove with a lid on it, was a special one night a week treat. I remember the the show's sponsor Winston cigarettes with its slogan, "Winstons taste good like a cigarette should." I remember my childhood friend from across the street Linda (whose mother was a nurse), and I messing around in the basement as toddlers and accidentally tipping an ashtray off dad's desk which hit me in the calf of my leg blood gushing out all over and leaving a small scar to this day.
Dad and mom didn't smoke, but even nonsmokers then had ashtrays sitting all over the house for the use of smoking relatives and others coming to visit. I had grandparents and aunts and uncles who did.
As an adult in 2008, I was told by a former next door neighbor that another house our family had lived in -- this one for 30 years -- in North Olmsted where we had moved to from W. 44th Street, was up for sale! My mother had died a year earlier, and I envisioned going back home again and buying it.
I contacted a realtor who showed me the gray two story colonial where I spent fourth grade through high school before going off to New York to college. But in this house, everything had changed.
The beautiful wallpaper mom had lovingly chosen for the dining room and all five bedrooms, was gone. Replaced with ugly colored paint jobs. Carpeting had been ripped up. The multi-colored outdoor patio, quite the thing in the 60's like having a deck is now and painstakingly designed by my engineer-educated NASA dad, gone, too. Replaced by a boring brick red all one color patio with a weird beveled edge making it easy to fall off it and twist an ankle especially in high heeled sandals or after having a beer or two at an outdoor barbecue.
Someone also had done something odd with the upstairs bathroom floor by raising it slightly and the step outdoors by the side door, making tripping a worry. The realtor agreed and said the changes did not appear to be up to code. Why they were made, who knows. The owners were the same people my parents had sold the house to some17 years earlier. Their children had finished high school and they were looking to move closer to their jobs.
Anyway, it wasn't the same anymore especially with the newer next door neighbors putting up some kind of barbed wire contraption to separate the backyards from one another.
I didn't make an offer. But in hindsight, I wish I had. Especially after seeing Cicely Tyson's sheer joy in The Trip to Bountiful despite her spineless son who finally gets a spine (Academy Award winner Cuba Gooding, Jr.) and his wife, the type of woman everyone knows at least one of, and I will say no more. Expertly played by Vanessa Williams. Condola Rashad, Cosby actress Phylicia's daughter, is delightful in Bountiful. Who can forget her tender performance in Lydia Diamond's Stick Fly last season. Rashad has garnered Tony noms in a featured actress role for both.
Wouldn't it be great if Cicely Tyson and Condola Rashad walked off with Tonys this Sunday? Sidney Poitier, Halle Berry and Denzel Washington all did at the 2002 Academy Awards ceremony.
If you have ever lived in a house and gone back or wanted to, see this play. It doesn't make you sad. It'll make you glad. Especially seeing a cast of living treasures work their magic on that Stephen Sondheim stage.
Lonna Saunders studied Drama at Vassar and Dartmouth. Said to be Frank Capra's favorite actress, Jean Arthur, was her acting teacher at Vassar. Lonna may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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