LOS ANGELES-“The Trip to Bountiful,” playing at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles through Nov. 2, has a full cast of Grade A actors that don’t have to take a back seat to many people. Cicely Tyson is not just anybody. She is a national treasure. When Tyson speaks, people listen.
Tyson turns the Horton Foote’s West Coast theatrical production into a signature role that seems to fit her perfectly the way Los Angeles Dodgers ace pitcher Clayton Kershaw wears his glove. In reprising a role as Mother Carrie Watts in which she won Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards as Best Actress (from the Broadway production), Tyson holds her intimate audience much the same way Kershaw grips his fastball: with ferocity.
No, the woman who provided the voice of the struggles of black women in powerful testimonies in films such as The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, A Woman Called Moses (Harriet Tubman), Sounder, Roots, King and The Marva Collins Story, bears no metaphoric comparison to a young, rising baseball star. It is just the way Tyson brings it on stage and have done during her lengthy acting career that is a reflective reminder of the will and determination that is usually bestowed on a professional athlete.
Let’s be clear here and make no mistake about this: Tyson is in a class all by herself. She displays as much in “The Trip to Bountiful.” On a stage with veteran and accomplished stars such as Blair Underwood, Vanessa Williams and the dynamic young actress Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Tyson elevates herself as the shiniest of stars. Underwood, Williams and Smollett-Bell are no slouches when it comes to accolades and critical acclaim for their thespian chops on the stage or otherwise.
Williams is flat-out one of the best entertainers in the world, claiming musical and acting nods for her work in “Ugly Betty,” and recording the Oscar-winning “Colors of the Wind.”
Blair is somewhat one of a Renaissance man in the acting industry: he can do it all, from penning books to whipping it in films such as “Posse” and “Woman Thou Art Loosed: On the 7th Day.”
Smollett-Bell, who sort of represents the receiver of the acting torch being passed to her from her excellent and heartfelt collaboration with Tyson during one of the play’s stirring moments, is the young star likely labeled as the one to watch. All three actors are at the top of their game in “The Trip to Bountiful.”
Yet it is the irresistible Tyson that steals the spotlight only the way an icon can. The opening dialogue exchange between her and the always on-point Blair draws immediate attention to her crafty acting abilities as she is able to inject a part of her that not too many people have seen of her on screen. Humor and cracking timely one-line jokes is not the one thing you think of when you think of Cicely Tyson.
It is the kind of quick wit displayed by Tyson that reminds you of your grandmother or mother who has the ability to call things as they see it without blinking an uncompromising eye. When one thinks of Cicely Tyson, though, it is usually through the lens of the essence of capturing the human spirit through triumph and tragedy, pain and struggle, and a dash of heroism and the courage to fight.
We see this unbreakable courage in “The Trip to Bountiful” in which Mother Carrie Watts (Tyson’s character) is bent on taking one last trip to her home of Bountiful against the wishes of her son Ludie Watts (Underwood) and daughter-in-law (Williams), who proves to be a wicked adversary and a constant thorn in the side.
Williams, of course, is so good at playing the antagonist as she has done in some of her other noted roles that she is in clearly in sync with her character like it is part of her DNA. Williams’ character-Jessie Mae Watts-treats Ludie like some kind of whipping boy, and alludes to her husband in more ways than one that his mother, other than the monthly check she gets, is nothing more than a pained nuisance.
Sensing she is unwanted in the home, Mother Carrie Watts embarks on a strategy to get to back to Bountiful. She hides her monthly check from Jessie Mae and Ludie, and then sets off for the local train station to get her there. It is at the train station where we are introduced to Thelma (Smollett-Bell). Thelma and Mother Carrie Watts somehow manage to strike up an immediate kinship as both set off on their respective journeys of travel.
It is during this interaction between Tyson and Smollett-Bell that “The Trip to Bountiful” becomes more than just a stage play: it becomes an experience. It is here that Tyson and Smollett-Bell work their magic and allows the audience to see the adoration of respect that Thelma has for her newly found friend that Mother Carrie Watts feel she has been missing from Ludie and the eagerly disrespectful Jessie Mae.
While the foundation is set for the characters to mesh, Tyson and Smollett-Bell are clearly in tune with one another as mentor and as the student. You are able to feel the synergy between the two as if this chance opportunity is something that is somewhat destined for them to share together. Needless to say, through trial and error, and after going through a multitude of drama, Mother Carrie Watts finally reaches Bountiful.
While the feel-good finale concludes with an all-is-well ending with the family matriarch, son and daughter-in-law coming to a concession point, “The Trip to Bountiful” is more about the journey than the destination. Tyson teaches all of us to not only embrace the road we’re traveling on, but to stand and fight for the chance to do so.