Photo of the day: “BLESSED ASSURANCE” GOING TO CHURCH (THEATER) WITH CICELY TYSON – On Friday night I had the great privilege of seeing one of the greatest actresses of the present day – Cicely Tyson give her final stage performance of her career in Horton Foote’s play “The Trip To Bountiful.” It has taken me a full day to recover from the emotional reaction to this stirring performance. In my 57 years, this ranks as the single top performance I have ever seen on stage. I have seen Ingrid Bergman, Katherine Hepburn, Jane Fonda, Patti Lupone in Evita, Jessye Norman, Elaine Stritch, many of the great others and even the great Bette Davis on stage, but this is the most emotional performance I have ever witnessed. Cicely Tyson’s entire being transforms into the character she portrays of 88 year old Mrs. Carrie Watts.
“The Trip To Bountiful” resonates so much now to the sold out performances because it speaks to our fast moving times. Mrs. Carrie Watts (originally played by legendary Lillian Gish on televison) wants to go home one more time to see her birthplace home in the town of Bountiful. She lives in 1953 Houston, Texas with her son and his self involved wife (Vanessa Williams), both of whom prevent her from going home for two reasons: her (supposed) weak heart and most of all, her social security check her son’s wife covets. Carrie finally slips out of the house and to the Greyhound bus station only to find out Bountiful doesn’t seem to exist anymore. Determined, she boards the bus for the next nearest town. On her way she befriends a young newly wed woman (Condola Rashad) to whom she reveals her story. As they arrive in the nearest town’s bus station, Carrie discovers she has lost her purse with her money (.35 cents), social security check and the truth that no one is alive anymore in the town of Bountiful. This seemingly to be the end, Carrie cheers herself up and the young woman by determinedly singing the hymn “Blessed Assurance.” And then, an unheard of phenomena occurs.
Cicely Tyson’s character is so convincing and the hymn so moving – the audience softly starts joining in. There is no orchestra, this is a dramatic play. Breaking through the fourth wall, the souls of the audience are joined with the spirit of Cicely Tyson’s character. I was moved to streaming tears of wonderment and joy. The joy of witnessing the lifting of souls to “Blessed Assurance” and a divine performance, the likes of which I have never seen.
See it from my perspective: I am white, sitting in an audience that is mostly of color, filled with many church going women. I did not know the hymn Cicely sings is an actual hymn. The audience does. It is a faith restoring hymn that has become a staple in the black churches of America, it is a part of their upbringing. As Mrs. Carrie Watts/Cicely is trying to lift their spirits up and she starts to recite, then to hum and then sing the hymn, this ‘chorus’ seemed to emerge. I didn’t understand what the effect was. A recording? A chorus back stage? In that instant you realize you are part of an extraordinary unprecedented experience as the audience by their being so moved, joins in. I have never experienced anything like it. It has been reported in The New York Times, this phenomena of, for first time in theater history, that the audience joins to share the moving spirit of the encouraging moment. Cicely’s body language as the old 88 year old woman, clasping her handkerchief, her face joyfully beaming, waving her hands in the air to god, is a vision I will never ever forget. I was shaken by the experience for the entire next day, making me think – what are we all rushing towards so quickly, only to run past what we are looking for? It made me wish for a gentler time, a quieter time, and to treasure the present before it’s gone and we wind up having to search for it, only to find it gone. I too yearn for a trip to Bountiful which alas seems to be gone.
This great actress, who has given us ‘The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman’, ‘Roots’, ‘Sounder’, ‘A Woman Called Moses’ – the story of Harriet Tubman, and recently ‘The Help’, has given the world an incomparable stage moment at age 80 (some say 88). In the final moment of the play, her son and daughter have caught up to her to bring her back home, forced to return, she is peaceful that she has seen her home in Bountiful one last time. Mrs. Carrie Watts waves and says “goodbye” to her home before she has to head back to Houston, then, turns to the open neglected farm fields (the audience) and waves, quietly and softly says “goodbye.” Curtain, the end.
The overwhelming meaning and emotion of that moment has moved me beyond compare.
1. Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!
O what a foretaste of glory divine!
Heir of salvation, purchase of God,
born of his Spirit, washed in his blood.
This is my story, this is my song,
praising my Savior all the day long;
this is my story, this is my song,
praising my Savior all the day long.
2. Perfect submission, perfect delight,
visions of rapture now burst on my sight;
angels descending bring from above
echoes of mercy, whispers of love.
3. Perfect submission, all is at rest;
I in my Savior am happy and blest,
watching and waiting, looking above,
filled with his goodness, lost in his love.
Mondays on Memory Lane: PLEASE HELP GIVE CAROL CHANNING A 2013 KENNEDY CENTER AWARD – If you are of a certain age, or you know your entertainment history, there are certain voices that on first note you recognize instantly. The Brooklyn of Jimmy Durante, the heart of Louis Armstrong, the belt of Ethel Merman, the breathiness Marilyn Monroe, the growl of Eartha Kitt, the shaky quality of Katherine Hepburn, the accent of Marlene Dietrich, the staccato speech pattern Bette Davis and above all the big hearted gravely “hello” of Carol Channing!
Carol is larger than life, she is a living caricature of herself, a favorite of the best caricature artist of all time Al Hirschfeld. She is also living Broadway history having created two of the most iconic characters in theater history, Lorelei Lee of ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ and Dolly Levi of ‘Hello Dolly’. No matter who you remember playing these characters on screen, Marilyn Monroe or Streisand – Carol originated them! But above all, there is no other creation like Carol herself. You fall in love with her the moment you set eyes on her.
At age 92, nothing has changed, her saucer eyes, her broad grin, that bowl cut hair style, the platinum blonde hair, that child-like enthusiasm with a heart of gold and above all, above all – that voice! I have had the thrill of seeing her on stage many times in my lifetime: 3 times as Dolly in 1970, 1978 and 1995. Once as Lorelei Lee the ultimate diamond loving gold digger the 1974’s ‘Lorelei’, the musical stage version of ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’. In film she will be forever remembered as Muzzy Van Hossmere in Julie Andrews’ ‘Thoroughly Modern Millie’ as Carol sang in a vocal range from a high ‘C’ to the lowest note possible in ‘I’m Just A Jazz Baby’ and ‘Raspberries!’
On April 30, 2011, my good friend Jeffrey Shonert and I had the thrilling absolute surreal honor of sitting in front of Carol Channing and her late husband Harry Kullijian at the premier of her life story documentary “Larger Than Life” at the Tribeca Film Festival here in New York. This was thanks to the larger than life heart and love of my dear friend, entertainer and author Richard Skipper. As the film ran I could hear Carol commenting on the film to her husband – two Carol voices at once – surreal!! Richard, I am forever indebted to you!
Once a year The Kennedy Center in Washington D.C hands out lifetime achievement awards to the greats of entertainment. Since their inception in 1978, in all this time, Carol Channing has never been honored. How they have overlooked and bypassed this legend is a travesty and embarrassment. What to me makes it worse, last year seemingly having run out of names to give it to, they gave it to mad magazine poster child David Letterman. How throwing watermelons off a roof while stupidly grinning into the camera merits a lifetime achievement award over the life’s work of Carol Channing is beyond me! She has entertained us since the 1940’s, has worked tirelessly for Arts In Education. She IS theater!
Thank you !
Hans Von Rittern