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Cicely Tyson

Continued Acting And Supporting The Arts

Even when a lack of good roles limited her work before the camera, Tyson continued to work diligently on behalf of the arts in the black community, devoting at least one month out of each year to touring colleges on speaking engagements, an activity that once prompted her to comment to an Ebony interviewer: "I'm appalled at the lethargy and the lack of incentive and motivation among the youth.... I feel there's a great need, especially for the youth, for positive images." One of her most significant contributions to black culture in America was the founding of the Dance Theater of Harlem, which she accomplished in cooperation with Arthur Mitchell. This organization recruits its members from local public schools, provides classical dance training, and gives students the opportunity to perform at national venues. For all her efforts, Tyson became a respected role model for youth. In honor of her dedication to her craft and to others, her name has graced a magnet school in East Orange, New Jersey, the Cicely Tyson School of Performing and Fine Arts, since 1995.

The 1990s and 2000s found Tyson back on the large and small screens in several highly acclaimed projects. She wowed critics and fans alike with her stunning portrayals of strong black women in the motion pictures Fried Green Tomatoes, Hoodlum, and Because of Winn-Dixie, and the television miniseries Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, for which she won another Emmy. As with the early years of her career, Tyson found more television than film work, and appeared in such television features as Sweet Justice, in which she played a gutsy southern lawyer; Road to Galveston, in which she portrayed a fictionalized story of a woman who realizes her dreams after being widowed; A Lesson Before Dying, in which she portrayed the aunt of a man sentenced to death for a crime he didn't commit; and The Rosa Parks Story, in which she played Parks' strong, supportive mother.

Despite her many successes, Tyson refused to rest on her laurels. "I think of myself as a work-in-progress to this day," Tyson told the Bergen County Record. Well into her seventies, she continued to seek out interesting and challenging roles. Her reasoning, as she described to the Bergen County Record, was attributable to her belief that "the day I ever feel I have attained greatness I will be finished. It means I have in fact stopped myself from developing."

Tyson's personal life is marked by the same type of discipline that typifies her acting. She is dedicated to physical fitness and eats a strict vegetarian diet with no caffeine or alcohol. She was married to jazz musician Miles Davis for a time; rumors have also circulated for years that she has two children, but the actress herself has refused to confirm or deny them. On the whole, she has been unusually successful in keeping the details of her life private and in forcing the public to judge her solely on the value of her work. And her body of work has won her a place among the most important black performers of the twentieth century. The Houston Chronicle describes Tyson as "like a chicken fried steak smothered in cream gravy. She's Southern comfort food—familiar, delicious, searing, satisfying. Her performances always hit the spot," adding that "She holds the patent for portraying struggling black women who make successes of themselves." As Ms. concluded, "She has an image that spans not only race, but the ideological differences among blacks themselves."

Additional topics

Brief BiographiesBiographies: Theodosius I to David Watmough Biography - David Watmough comments:Cicely Tyson Biography - Career Began In Modeling, Brought Her Talent To The Stage, Showed Audiences The Beauty Of Black Women - Selected works