A regional theatre had contacted the Foote estate about doing an African-American version of The Trip to Bountiful, and keeper-of-the-flame Hallie Foote, one of the author's daughters, agreed. It went over so well she started talking up a similar version on Broadway, catching the ear and enthusiasm of producer Nelle Nugent.
Strictly speaking, this is not an all-black edition, but it is black enough to point up quietly some of the injustices in Texas of 1953—like the White Waiting Room sign with an arrow pointing off stage or the colored-at-the-back-of-the-bus racial policy.
The cherry on the sundae was acquiring a star like Tyson, who, at the time, was thought to be retired or otherwise unattainable, but, it turned out, waving her dream role under her nose brought her around. "If something comes to you the way this role came to me, you know that it isn't something you should ignore," she said.
First and last, The Trip to Beautiful is a celebration of Cicely Tyson and her abiding art. That said, it must quickly be added that Vanessa Williams is a revelation here. Broadway is used to her ably acting her way through musicals like Into the Woods, but she has been refining her acting chops on TV ("Ugly Betty," et al.), and she comes ready for bear. It is uphill trying to score points in an unpleasant role antagonistic to Tyson's character, but Williams finds ways to humanize a woman unlucky enough to have her mother-in-law eternally underfoot. Resentment! You have no idea! But when Williams says they used to say she was "a cross between Rita Hayworth and Lena Horne," you can see it. And you sense her constant craving for movie magazines secretly fans a dream she buried when she married beneath her.
"You have to understand the character to make her real," Williams explained, "and I definitely identified living in a two-room apartment with my mother-in-law, not being able to make love to my husband, not having any boundaries, having people go and snoop in your things all the time, not to be able to dream. The only dream she has is to go to the beauty parlor to get a little taste of glamour, and also not wanting to think about the past because obviously she has been childless. It's a painful thing, so there is a lot of things that I chose to embrace to make her real."
Trip provided her other tricks: "Horton Foote's words are fantastic, but the surprise for me is the amount of humor that is in the piece. We do a reading and think, 'Oh, okay, sentimental.' Then you get it on the stage and you get an audience in—we came off our first preview, and we said, 'When did this turn into 'Three's Company'?' There were so many laughs. We had no idea the amount of humor that was in the piece. So it's nice to give the audience that sentiment but also make them joyous."
As the man in the middle of these two warring women, Cuba Gooding, Jr. easily gets the audience's sympathy vote. You expect at any moment he is going to break into James Dean's "you're tearing me apart!" angst, but instead he plays it with an above-and-beyond-the-call kind of patience and politeness—right up to the inevitable moment, late on, when he blows his stack and wins a big hand from the audience.
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