Veteran actress, who won a Tony Award for Fences, dies Mary Alice

Mary Alice, who added emotional depth and dignity to her performance on stage and screen, won a Tony Award for August Wilson’s play “Fences” and reached a wider audience with the Cosby Show spin-off “A Different World”, died July 27 At her home in Manhattan. She was 85, according to the New York Police Department, although other sources have suggested she may have been 80.

Police spokesman Lt. John Grimple confirmed her death. Additional details were not immediately available.

A former secretary and elementary school teacher in Chicago, Mrs. Alice began acting in her twenties, beginning with an all-black community theater production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” in Tennessee Williams. “It was an escape from reality,” she later told the Chicago Tribune. “He escaped. That is why I went to him for the first time. I was running away from my working-class environment.”

Mrs. Alice has gone on to appear in nearly 60 films and TV shows, including as the mother of three talented singing sisters in the 1976 music-drama film “Sparkle” and as director of the Lettie Bostic’s dorm in the first two seasons of “A Different World, About Life at Black College Historically in Virginia.

She won an Emmy 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 Matrix Revolutions (2003), succeeding the late. Actress Gloria Foster, who grew up in this role.

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

August Wilson dies at the age of sixty; His plays about black lives in the twentieth century are among the most popular of modern dramas

The play opened on Broadway in 1987, and ran for over a year, starring James Earl Jones as her husband Troy, a gallbladder guard who played Black League baseball before serving a prison sentence. Mrs. Alice’s character tries to hold the family together even when Troy reveals that another woman is about to have her child; Defending himself in a zigzag, valid letter, he insists he simply wanted more of life. Then Rose cut him off.

“Don’t you think I’ve ever wanted other things?” she said in a trembling voice. “Don’t you think I have dreams and hopes? What about my life, what about me?”

Mrs. Alice’s response sparked outrage from the audience during some performances, according to a New York Times report, including shouts of “That’s right!” or “Go girl!” The paper’s theater critic Frank Rich wrote, “Mrs. Alice’s performance emphasizes strength over self-pity, and outright anger over festering bitterness. The actress finds the spiritual quotient in the acceptance that accompanies Rose’s love for a man so scarred and so complex. It is rare to find a marriage of any A genre that is presented on stage with such balance.”

“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 everything,” she later said—but returned to Broadway in 1995 to star in “Have Our Say.” Adapted by Emily Mann from the bestselling Oral History book, the play tells the story of Sadie and Bessie Delaney, sisters who were born in the late 1800s to a formerly enslaved father and went on to build successful careers as a school teacher and dentist, respectively.

Mrs. Alice played Bessie, who joked that she and her sister, played by Gloria Foster, had turned 100 because “we didn’t have husbands to worry about us to death.” The play had 317 performances and earned three Tony nominations, including Best Actress for Mrs. Alice, who saw the role as a rare opportunity to transcend the “one-dimensional” parts that she said were often reserved for older black performers, especially women.

“Metaphysics, I know why I’m playing Dr. Bessie,” she told The Washington Post. “My mood is very close to hers. So very. She is what they call a ‘feeling child’ who wears her emotions on her sleeve. She is outspoken and quick to anger. She finds it hard to distance herself from the things she feels most strongly about. This description fits me with a T. There is no middle ground for people Like Bessie and me.”

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

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

After graduating from Chicago Teachers’ College, she began working in education, and moved to New York City in 1967 with plans to continue teaching. Instead, her friends persuaded her to audition for the newly formed Negro Ensemble Company, which sought to promote a black alternative to the white-dominated theater scene. The company rejected her but assigned her to an acting class taught by Lloyd Richards, who later directed her in “Fences”.

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

She dropped her family name, much to her father’s dismay, and by the mid-1970s she was appearing in episodes of “Police Women” and “Sanford & Son”, with a starring role in the TV movie adaptation of Philip Hayes Dean’s play “The Blind Pig Style”. She also performed regularly in Off-Broadway plays, winning an Obie Award in 1979 for her performance as Brutus’ wife, Portia, in the all-black and Latino production of “Julius Caesar.”

Besides “Fences,” she performed on Broadway in two other Pulitzer-winning plays, the 1971 production of Charles Gordon’s “No Place to Be Somebody” and the 1994 revival of Michael Christopher’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 battling poverty and sexual violence in a dilapidated housing project. The following year, she appeared in three films, most notably starring in “To Sleep With Anger,” director Charles Burnett’s critically acclaimed black comedy, as a wife and mother whose family life is upended by an old friend played by Danny Glover. She was also a nurse working alongside Robin Williams in “Awakenings” and the mother of a hit-and-run in “The Bonfire of the Vanities.”

No information was immediately available on survivors.

Mrs. Alice’s subsequent 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.

She told the 1986 Tribune newspaper, “Acting was a huge sacrifice. I sometimes think that if I kept working as a teacher, I would actually retire. The income was flat. … But I didn’t feel about teaching the way I do about acting. It’s my life’s service. I’m supposed to I use it.

“I had an experience years ago when I thought about giving it up,” she continued. “I didn’t really feel like I wanted to act anymore. I was sitting down. I got up and went through the experience. It was a feeling, a feeling so clear and I had no doubt what it was. It was my Lord. To go home, everything would be fine,” said the voice to go home. She said as long as you work, don’t worry about the money.”

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