The Washington Post

She was in movies and TV shows, but Tony winner’s heart was on stage


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

Her death was confirmed by Lt. John Grimpel, a police spokesman. Additional details were not immediatel­y available.

A former secretary and elementary school teacher in Chicago, Ms. Alice started acting in her 20s, beginning with an allBlack community theater production of Tennessee Williams’s “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”

“It was escapism,” she later told the Chicago Tribune. “Escape. That’s why I first went into it. I was escaping from my environmen­t of working-class people.”

Ms. Alice went on to appear in nearly 60 movies and television shows, including as the mother of three talented singing sisters in the 1976 musical drama film “Sparkle” and as dorm director Lettie Bostic on 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 had originated the role.

But for the most part she found most interestin­g roles on the stage. She was first widely known for her portrayal of Rose Maxson, the compassion­ate but belea

guered wife in the Pulitzer Prizewinni­ng 1950s period drama “Fences,” part of Wilson’s 10-part Pittsburgh Cycle, an exploratio­n of race and class, love and betrayal, across each decade of the 20th century.

Opening on Broadway in 1987, the play ran for more than a year, starring James Earl Jones as her husband, Troy, a bitter garbageman who played baseball in the Negro Leagues before serving time in prison. Ms. Alice’s character tries to hold the family together even as Troy reveals that another woman is about to have his child; defending himself in a meandering, self-righteous speech, he insists that he had

simply wanted more out of life. Then Rose cuts him off.

“Don’t you think I ever wanted other things?’ ” she says, voice trembling. “Don’t you think I had dreams and hopes? What about my life? What about me?”

Ms. Alice’s retort led to outbursts from the crowd 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 that “Ms. Alice’s performanc­e emphasizes strength over self-pity, open anger over festering bitterness. The actress finds the spiritual quotient in the acceptance that accompanie­s Rose’s love for a

scarred, profoundly complicate­d man. It’s rare to find a marriage of any sort presented on stage with such balance.”

“Fences” won four Tony Awards, including best actor for Jones and best featured actress for Ms. Alice, who found herself increasing­ly in demand.

She left the play to appear on “A Different World” — “I felt like I had sold out,” she later said — but returned to Broadway in 1995 to star as a feisty centenaria­n in “Having Our Say.” Adapted by Emily Mann from a best-selling oral-history book, the play told the story of Sadie and Bessie Delany, sisters who were born in the late 19th century to a formerly enslaved father and went on to build successful careers as a schoolteac­her and dentist, respective­ly.

Ms. Alice played Bessie, who jokes that she and her sister, played by Gloria Foster, made it to age 100 because “we never had husbands to worry us 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 break beyond the “one-dimensiona­l” parts that she said were often assigned to older Black performers, especially women.

“Metaphysic­ally, I know why I’m playing Dr. Bessie,” she told The Washington Post. “My temperamen­t is very close to hers. Very. She’s what they call a ‘feeling child,’ who wears her emotions on her sleeve. She’s outspoken, quick to anger. She has difficulty distancing herself from things she feels strongly about. That descriptio­n fits me to a T. There’s no middle ground for people like Bessie and me.”

Mary Alice Smith was born in Indianola, Miss., and grew up in Chicago. She rarely spoke about her personal life but said she modeled her performanc­e in “Fences” partly on her mother and an aunt. “It was a kind of tribute to them and the Black women in my family who never were able to pursue their dreams,” she told the Times.

After graduating from Chicago Teachers College, she started working in education, moving to New York City in 1967 with plans to continue teaching. Instead, 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 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 on episodes of “Police Woman” and “Sanford and Son,” with a starring role in the TV movie 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’s wife, Portia, in an all-black and Hispanic production of “Julius Caesar.”

Besides “Fences,” she performed 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 battling poverty and sexual violence in a dilapidate­d housing project. The next year, she appeared in three movies, notably starring in “To Sleep With Anger,” filmmaker 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 with Robin Williams in “Awakenings” and the mother of a hit-and-run victim in “The Bonfire of the Vanities.”

Informatio­n on 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 movie directed by the poet. After appearing in the 2005 TV remake of “Kojak,” she retired from acting.

 ?? JIM Smeal/ron Galella Collection/getty IMAGES ?? Mary Alice won an Emmy for outstandin­g supporting actress in a drama series as Marguerite Peck on “I’ll Fly Away” in 1993. She also won a Tony Award in 1987 for best featured actress in “Fences” and was nominated for best actress in “Having Our Say.”
JIM Smeal/ron Galella Collection/getty IMAGES Mary Alice won an Emmy for outstandin­g supporting actress in a drama series as Marguerite Peck on “I’ll Fly Away” in 1993. She also won a Tony Award in 1987 for best featured actress in “Fences” and was nominated for best actress in “Having Our Say.”

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