Mary Alice, veteran actress who won a Tony for ‘Fences,’ dies

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 department 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 all-Black 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 the most interesting roles on the stage. She was first widely known for her portrayal of Rose Maxson, the compassionate but beleaguered wife in the Pulitzer Prize-winning 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.

August Wilson dies at 60; his plays about 20th-century Black life were among the most celebrated modern dramas

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 Negro League baseball 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 Style 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 alongside 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 famous poet . After appearing in the 2005 TV remake of “Kojak,” she retired from acting.

“Acting has been a big sacrifice,” she told the Tribune in 1986. “I sometimes think that if I had continued to be a teacher, I would be retired already. The income would have been constant. … But I didn’t feel about teaching the way I do about acting. It’s my service in life. I’m supposed to use it.

“I had an experience years ago when I thought about giving it up,” she continued. “I really didn’t feel I wanted to act anymore. I was sitting down. I got up and I had the experience. It was a feeling, a feeling with such clarity and I had no doubt what it was. It was my God. The voice said to go home, that everything is going to be all right. As long as you do work, it said, don’t worry about the money.”

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