Mary Alice, an actress known for her Emmy- and Tony Award–winning work in plays and TV shows such as Fences and I’ll Fly Away, died on July 27 at age 85. The NYPD confirmed the news to The Hollywood Reporter on July 28. Alice began her career in theater while working as an elementary-school teacher. “Her first acting was in Days of Absence and Happy Endings,” wrote Bob McCann in the 2009 Encyclopedia of African American Actresses in Film and Television. “For $200 a week she played three roles, and twice a week washed and ironed the cast’s laundry.” She was also known for her work as the Oracle in The Matrix Revolutions, a role in which she replaced Gloria Foster, with whom Alice had previously collaborated onstage in the 1995 production of Having Our Say: The Delaney Sisters’ First 100 Years.
Alice is perhaps best remembered for originating the role of Rose in August Wilson’s 1987 play Fences, a part that would later win Viola Davis a Tony and an Oscar. “Ms. Alice’s performance emphasizes strength over self-pity, open anger over festering bitterness,” wrote theater critic Frank Rich of her work in the show. “The actress finds the spiritual quotient in the acceptance that accompanies Rose’s love for a scarred, profoundly complicated man.” Alice would go on to win a Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play for her performance. “I accept this tribute in memory of my beloved father, Sam Smith,” she said in her acceptance speech.
Alice received two Emmy nominations for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series for her work in I’ll Fly Away, winning the latter of the two in 1993. This made her only the third Black actress to win the award, after Gail Fisher in 1970 and Alfre Woodard in 1984.