Mary Alice, veteran actress who won a Tony for ‘Fences,’ has died

Mary Alice, who brought emotional depth and dignity to her performances on stage and screen, winning a Tony Award for August Wilson’s play “Fences” and reaching an even wider audience through the spin-off “Cosby Show “A Different World,” died July 27 at her home in Manhattan. She was 85, according to the New York Police Department, although other sources suggest she could have been 80.

His death was confirmed by Lt. John Grimpel, a spokesman for the police department. Additional details were not immediately available.

A former secretary and elementary school teacher in Chicago, Ms. Alice began acting in her 20s, beginning with an all-black community theater production of Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” “It was escapism,” she later told the Chicago Tribune. “Escaping. That’s why I went for it in the first place. I was escaping my environment of working class people.

Ms Alice went on to appear in nearly 60 films and TV shows, including as the mother of three talented singing sisters in the 1976 musical drama film ‘Sparkle’ and as dorm manager Lettie Bostic in the first two seasons of “A Different World,” about life at a historically black college in Virginia.

She won an Emmy Award in 1993 for her supporting role in “I’ll Fly Away,” an NBC period drama about race relations in the South, and later played the Prophetic Oracle in “The Matrix Revolutions.” (2003), succeeding the late actress Gloria Foster, who originated the role.

But for the most part, she found the most interesting roles on stage. She was first widely known for her portrayal of Rose Maxson, the compassionate but beleaguered wife in the 1950s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “Fences,” part of Wilson’s 10-part Pittsburgh cycle, a exploration of race and class, love and betrayal, in every decade of the 20th century.

August Wilson dies at 60; his plays about black life in the 20th century were among the most famous modern dramas

Opening on Broadway in 1987, the play ran for over a year, starring James Earl Jones as her husband, Troy, a bitter garbage collector who played Negro League baseball before serving time in prison. . The character of Mrs. Alice tries to hold the family together even as Troy reveals that another woman is about to have his child; defending himself in a meandering and self-righteous speech, he insists that he had simply wanted more from life. Then Rose cuts him off.

“Don’t you think I ever wanted anything else?” she said, her voice shaking. “Don’t you think I had dreams and hopes? And my life? And me?”

Ms. Alice’s line caused outbursts from the crowd at some performances, according to a New York Times report, including shouts of “It’s true!” or “Come on, girl!” The newspaper’s theater critic, Frank Rich, wrote that “Ms. Alice’s performance emphasizes strength rather than self-pity, open anger over festering bitterness. The actress finds the spiritual quotient in the acceptance that accompanies Rose’s love for a bruised and deeply complicated man. It’s rare to find a wedding of any kind presented on stage with such poise.

“Fences” won four Tony Awards, including Best Actor for Jones and Best Featured Actress for Mrs. Alice, who found herself increasingly in demand.

She left the play to appear in ‘A Different World’ – “I felt like I had sold out”, she later said – but returned to Broadway in 1995 to play the role of a fiery centenarian in “Having Our Say”. Adapted by Emily Mann from an oral history bestseller, the play tells the story of Sadie and Bessie Delany, two sisters born in the late 19th century to a once-slave father who went on to successful careers in as a teacher and dentist, respectively.

Mrs Alice played Bessie, who jokes that she and her sister, played by Gloria Foster, have reached the age of 100 because “we never had husbands to worry about to death”. The play ran for 317 performances and received three Tony nominations, including Best Actress for Ms. Alice, who saw the role as a rare chance to rise above the ‘one-dimensional’ roles she said were often given to performers. older blacks, in particular. women.

“Metaphysically, I know why I’m playing Dr. Bessie,” she told The Washington Post. “My temperament is very close to his. Very. She is what they call a “sensitive child”, who wears her emotions on her sleeve. She is outspoken, quick to anger. She finds it difficult to walk away from the things that are close to her heart. This description fits me perfectly. There’s no middle ground for people like Bessie and me.

Mary Alice Smith was born in Indianola, Mississippi and raised in Chicago. She rarely spoke about her personal life, but said she modeled her performance in “Fences” in part on her mother and an aunt.

“It was kind of a tribute to them and to the black women in my family who were never able to pursue their dreams,” she told The Times.

After graduating from Chicago Teachers College, she began working in education and moved to New York in 1967 with the intention of continuing to teach. Instead, friends persuaded her to audition for the new Negro Ensemble Company, which sought to promote a black alternative to the white-dominated theater scene. The company turned her down but assigned her to an acting class taught by Lloyd Richards, who later directed her in “Fences.”

“I’m an actor today because of that,” Ms Smith told the New York Daily News.

She dropped her last name, much to her father’s dismay, and by the mid-1970s was appearing in episodes of “Police Woman” and “Sanford and Son”, starring in the television adaptation of Phillip Hayes Dean’s play “The Sty of the Blind Pig. She also performed regularly in off-Broadway plays, winning an Obie Award in 1979 for her performance as Brutus’ wife, Portia, in an all-black and Hispanic production from Julius Caesar.

Besides “Fences,” she appeared on Broadway in two other Pulitzer-winning plays, a 1971 production of Charles Gordone’s “No Place to Be Somebody” and a 1994 revival of Michael Cristofer’s “The Shadow Box.”

On screen, she played Oprah Winfrey’s mother in the 1989 miniseries “The Women of Brewster Place”, based on Gloria Naylor’s novel about women fighting poverty and sexual violence in a project dilapidated housing. The following year, she appeared in three films, including ‘To Sleep With Anger’, filmmaker Charles Burnett’s critically acclaimed dark comedy, as a wife and mother whose family life is turned upside down by an old man. friend, played by Danny Glover. She was also a nurse alongside Robin Williams in “Awakenings” and the mother of a hit-and-run victim in “The Bonfire of the Vanities.”

Information about survivors was not immediately available.

Ms. Alice’s later screen credits included roles in Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X” (1992), Clint Eastwood’s “A Perfect World” (1993) and Maya Angelou’s “Down in the Delta” (1998), the only film directed by the famous poet. After appearing in the 2005 TV remake of “Kojak”, she retired from acting.

“Acting was a big sacrifice,” she told the Tribune in 1986. “I sometimes think that if I had continued to be a teacher, I would have already retired. The income would have been constant. … But I didn’t want to teach like I do to play. It’s my service in life. I’m supposed to use it.

“I had an experience years ago when I thought about giving it up,” she continued. “I really didn’t feel like playing anymore. I was sitting down. I got up and had the experience. It was a feeling, a feeling with such clarity and I had no doubts about it. it was. It was my God. The voice said go home, everything will be fine. As long as you work, he said, don’t worry about the money.

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