by Lilly Workneh -thegrio.com
Washington, D.C. – First lady Michelle Obama said when she grows up she wants to be like Cicely Tyson.
Mrs. Obama praised the award-winning performer Monday at a special White House screening of Tyson’s latest work, The Trip to Bountiful.
The event was held in recognition of African-American history month, which Obama said is about “honoring those who came before us” and “resolving to do our part to live up to that example.”
The Tony-Award winning play — originally created by playwright Horten Foote in 1953 — was revived on stage by Tyson and a stellar cast which drew massive crowds during the show’s run on Broadway and earned accolades for their distinguished work.
The first lady herself caught the play on Broadway and she told the screening attendees that she enjoyed the moral lessons carried in the play’s plot along with Tyson’s “impressive” performance.
“This is so exciting – it is a wonderful movie and I am so thrilled that we have the opportunity to show it here at the White House,” Mrs. Obama said. “I had the pleasure of seeing the Broadway play last summer in New York with my girls and we were blown away by the story of persistence and hope and the ties that bind us all together.”
Now, the acclaimed drama has been adapted into a Lifetime film that features an A-list cast including Tyson, Blair Underwood, Vanessa Williams and Keke Palmer.
The film is set in the Jim Crow South and tells the story of an elderly woman named Carrie Watts (Tyson) who is preoccupied with returning to her home in Bountiful, Texas before she dies.
Tyson scored a best actress Tony Award for her portrayal of the tenacious Watts – adding to her distinguished body of work which has landed her two Emmy Awards, and Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations.
“But Ms. Tyson’s story is so much more than honors and accolades,” Mrs. Obama said. “It is really about character, and determination and it’s about breaking barriers, not just for herself but for all of us who are blessed by her legacy.”
In highlighting the impressive resume Tyson has built over the decades, the first lady took audience members through a quick journey describing the actress’s tumultuous path to success.
“Ms. Tyson grew up in the New York City…and her father was a carpenter and her mother cleaned houses and as a child, Ms. Tyson sold shopping bags on the street to help her family get by,” she said.
“After she graduated from high school she took a job as a secretary and then pursued modeling and acting but this was the early ’60s and there weren’t many roles for black women, still a challenge today so ms. Tyson took whatever part she could find.”
However, the only parts offered to her were prostitutes — which became the first three roles Tyson played on stage until she made the conscious decision to demand better.
“She believed that playing only those types of roles was demeaning not just to her but to black women everywhere,” the first lady said. “So in the decades that have followed Ms. Tyson, she has used her work to carry that banner forward – even if it meant waiting years between roles until she found one that was acceptable to her.”
Tyson proved she was up to the ask and earned widespread praise for her portrayals of “strong, resilient women” in celebrated films like Sounder, Roots and The Help.
Still, perhaps no part is more meaningful to Tyson than The Trip to Bountiful – which marked her first stage role in almost 30 years.
“That is truly what we are celebrating this month – those who moved us past ignorance with their wisdom and perseverance,” Mrs. Obama said.
“Those who demanded more from the world around them and those who reached for higher standards through their life’s work – whether that’s as a movie star like Ms. Tyson or the millions of folks out there like Carrie Watts.”
The Trip to Bountiful premieres on Lifetime on March 8 at 8 p.m.