Rehearsing for Broadway With James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson

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“I wonder why people retire to do nothing.” Photo: Joan Marcus

“We’re the only ones who come out here on visitors’ day,” says James Earl Jones in a farm-bred accent several notches folksier than the voices of CNN, Mufasa, and Darth Vader. He and Cicely Tyson are seated across a card table and surrounded by the accoutrements of old age — crutches, wheelchairs, and other flotsam. None of it belongs to Jones, who is 84, or Tyson, who doesn’t give her age but is reportedly 90. These are only props, strewn across the back half of a large rehearsal room on 42nd Street. Flynn Earl Jones, James’s son and assistant, is sitting in a far corner of the room, looking over notes.

Behind the actors, a large piece of drywall stands in for the ramshackle nursing home whose front porch they’ll occupy when the Broadway revival of The Gin Game opens on October 14. Though their offstage appearances tend to be black-tie (Tyson gets a Kennedy Center Honor in December; Jones already has one), today they are dressed for work — he in a gray blazer and sensible shoes, she in denim and a sequined U.S. Open cap. They’ve just rehearsed the second scene in D. L. Coburn’s 1977 Pulitzer Prize–winning play, in which two neglected old-timers seek solace over a pack of cards.

“It’s a very disturbing play to me,” says Tyson. Over several rounds of gin rummy — a game the actors are still getting the hang of — Tyson’s fragile Fonsia repeatedly beats Jones’s Weller, a bombastic former businessman and self-styled master of the game. The luckier she gets, the nastier he becomes, threatening to destroy their nascent friendship and, perhaps, their images of themselves. “You think it’s a piece about playing cards, but it’s not,” says Tyson. “Because what you’re doing is delving into the personalities of two very sad, lonely people.”

It isn’t a very flattering portrait of old age — but then, asks Jones, “is there one?” Tyson and Jones seem to handle it uncommonly well. The Gin Game brings them back together on Broadway for the first time in 49 years. They met in Jean Genet’s early-’60s spectacle The Blacks, which did as much for the avant-garde as for racial diversity onstage. “If there’s a black actor you were to hear of in the next three decades, they were in that play,” says Jones.

Did their characters interact? “He was my lover,” Tyson says, pointing emphatically at Jones. Did they have chemistry? “It was all chemistry,” says Jones, and Tyson belts out a laugh. “It wasn’t so much the material as the things that went on while we were performing,” she says. “Every single night there was an incident of some kind, like someone running out in the middle of it. Somebody [from the audience] was carted away in an ambulance and taken to Bellevue. A play should be written about the performance and the cast of The Blacks.

In 1966, Tyson and Jones reunited for a short-lived Broadway revue of black spirituals and readings. But the Great White Way was literally that, decades away from any meaningful African-American presence.
“I remember, there was a production on Broadway called Subways Are for Sleeping,” says Jones. “You go see the musical, there were no ethnic people on the subway! We knew better. The cast of The Blacks rallied — ‘Let’s go picket this fucker!’ — but that wasn’t my thing. I was hoping I’d find something better to do, and I wasn’t good at it. To picket you must be able to articulate what your cause is, and I can’t always do that.”

Tyson took a more overtly political approach — not by carrying a picket sign but by taking parts that articulated the cause. “I really could not afford the luxury of being an actress,” she says. “I had some issues that I really wanted to address, and I chose my career as a platform.” In the ’70s, her roles in Sounder and Roots made her a civil-rights icon. Only over the past decade or so has she been willing to take roles that are less message-driven, partly because she feels that the opportunities have expanded. “I don’t have to point out to you what’s happened on television as far as blacks are concerned, virtually taking over,” she says. Shortly after our meeting, Viola Davis will become the first black winner of a Best Actress in a Drama Emmy for How to Get Away With Murder. Tyson was also nominated, for a guest role on the same show.

After their early collaborations, Tyson and Jones did two movies together in the ’70s. Since then, they’ve watched each other work: Jones has always admired Tyson’s “ability to take chances,” and she tries to catch everything he does: “I know the sensitivity of this being.” After two decades away, she returned to Broadway in 2013, spending two years (including a tour) in an African-American revival of Horton Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful. For years she’d asked her agent to “get me my Trip to Bountiful” — meaning a dramatic swan song akin to Geraldine Page’s turn in the 1985 movie — after which she would retire. Yet after taking that very role, Tyson kept going. “I wonder why people retire to do nothing,” she says. Her only experience with retirement homes comes from visiting friends and researching parts like this one.

Despite his audible majesty onscreen, Jones never left the theater and has lately been on a Broadway tear — six shows in ten years. One of those was Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the second all-black Broadway revival he’s starred in. No matter the strides they and their peers have made, both actors believe such race-conscious productions remain necessary and valuable. “Ethnicity is still an important factor,” Jones says. “You look at the police issue in the young public, there’s a lot to be resolved. In fact, each political climate adds more junk to it than air … Everybody sat back and waited for Obama to solve everything. Big mistake. That’s not what he was there for.”

“God bless him,” adds Tyson. But, she’s quick to note, The Gin Game is an essentially race-blind script: “Anybody can find themselves in this situation.” Jones concurs: “We all get old.” Coburn made a few revisions for this production, but his only major change was to make the characters older, accommodating both these particular actors and the fact that Fonsia’s original age, 71, is practically in midlife now.

Tyson signed on to The Gin Game first — despite a few reservations about “the kind of language [Fonsia] is forced to use” — and “when I read it, I thought, Oh, God, this is James Earl Jones. I couldn’t read it without hearing his voice, seeing his physical action.” She says she hasn’t yet found the core of Fonsia, an apparently passive woman who’s nonetheless alienated all the men in her life. Jones is feeling surer-footed, thanks in part to a book his son gave him. “What is it called, Flynn?” Jones calls out. “The DSM-5,” Flynn responds — that is, the bible of psychiatric illnesses. “What we have is a person with a narcissistic disorder,” Jones continues. “Really, he’s a lot like Mr. Trump.”

Contra their roles, Jones is the pussycat in the room, Tyson the boisterous agitator. When I make the mistake of addressing them both as “you guys” — twice — she snaps: “He’s the guy. I’m the lady! What if I called you a gal?” Jones, by contrast, muses abstractly on any given subject, from gambling — “inviting some spiritual force into the world” — to the real subject of The Gin Game. “We all maybe don’t get old alone,” he says, “but we do get old privately, within ourselves. We have to deal with the fact that time is closing and closing and closing in on you. I won’t say I look forward to dying, but I’m not at this moment afraid of it. There was a beginning once, and that was pretty darn exciting. And now I’ll have another, not similar but definitive, experience.”

Tyson may not be going so quietly. “Young people think they’re too smart to let those things happen to them,” she says, meaning “incarceration” in a nursing home. “But there are so many circumstances that allow people to fall into that situation. And time is the enemy. Time.” It hasn’t quite caught up with her. People keep sending Tyson scripts — “Broadway shows! Very attractive. But I’ve gotta deal with one thing at a time.”

*This article appears in the October 5, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.