It's hard to believe that Horton Foote's The Trip to Bountiful, one of the most beloved plays of all time, has not been seen on Broadway in 60 years. True, the drama has had many off-Broadway revivals, most recently in 2005 at Signature Theatre Company, but for a play that provides a host of juicy roles — including one that is widely considered to be one of the great females characters of American drama — its absence has been quite surprising.
On March 30, it returns to Broadway in a production directed by frequent Foote collaborator Michael Wilson (who helmed Foote's epic, nine-hour Orphans' Home Cycle, among others) and is shepherded back to the stage by Hallie Foote, the playwright's Tony-nominated daughter and executor of his literary estate. This production finds Emmy Award winner Cicely Tyson (Sounder) following in the footsteps of Geraldine Page, Lillian Gish, and Lois Smith in the role of Mrs. Carrie Watts, an elderly woman with dreams of one last return to her old hometown, Bountiful, Texas. Her co-stars, Academy Award winner Cuba Gooding Jr. (Jerry Maguire) and Emmy and Tony Award nominee Vanessa Williams (Sondheim on Sondheim), provide Carrie's main opposition as the overprotective Ludie and domineering Jessie Mae, the son and daughter-in-law with whom Carrie lives.
At the show's press event, held Monday, March 11 at the famed theater district eatery Sardi's, we caught up with Tyson, Gooding Jr., and Williams for a roundtable discussion about the universal story of Bountiful, the star-studded cast's Broadway dreams, and precisely why this production isn't merely a "revival."
Cicely, what was it that attracted you to The Trip to Bountiful?
Cicely Tyson: That it came to me! [Laughs] I saw the movie some twenty-eight years ago and I said to my agent "You get me my Trip to Bountiful," because I was so moved by the piece and Geraldine [Page]'s performance, of course. I just wanted one more good role, and then I would retire. Over the years, I kept reminding him that I was waiting and waiting.
When did the waiting stop?
CT: About four months ago, I received a phone call from my assistant who said that Van Ramsey, the costume designer for this show, with whom I had worked on several films, was looking to introduce [me] to someone, and the someone turned out to be Hallie Foote, Horton's daughter. We met for lunch, and she told me what she was doing, and she said, "I know that my father would want no one else but you in the role, because he had such tremendous respect for your work." And that's how it happened. This one just came to me, so I was very lucky in that respect. Blessed, I would say.
Cuba, was Broadway always a dream?
Cuba Gooding Jr.: I would have been here a lot sooner if I didn't have kids. That was the one promise. I said to my wife "I won't indulge in Broadway." Because it is an indulgence for me. Broadway was the gold standard and what I wanted to get to. I was looking to do theater. I was offered something on the West End of London and went down that road, and then it fell through because of dates, and then this came up.
Vanessa, with roles like Wilhelmina Slater on Ugly Betty under your belt, you've sort of become the go-to actress for playing strong, icy females. Where does Jessie Mae Watts fall on that spectrum?
Vanessa Williams: [With] Wilhelmina, that was her job. This is another interesting, spunky, fiery, frustrated gal who loves her man and would like her life back, without in-laws. I have to like my characters, as devilish and flawed as they are. The lucky thing is, working with Michael Wilson, who worked with Horton for twenty years, and Hallie Foote, who's Horton's daughter…
CG: They are there every day.
VW: And they share stories with us. So they'll tell us what reference was what and what the town was like. It's not just that we're doing a revival. They're taking some of the dialogue from the teleplay, some from the screenplay, some from the original Broadway show, and getting a chance to say "That didn't work, let's try this."
Cicely has seen the movie. Have the two of you?
CG: I'll wait until after we finish. I could watch it and go, "Oh, that's how [John Heard] did it," or I could just see it after I finish.
VW: You're so different, it wouldn't make a difference.
CG: But you know what I mean? It's like, I deliver one line every day and see him do it that way and go, "Ohhhh, I really screwed that interpretation up." But it helps that, [Michael Wilson] gives you so much information, and between him and Hallie there in the rehearsal hall…We had an issue with a line and she was like "No, no, no, he likes that," he being her father.
What drew you to the play?
VW: Cicely. Cicely, Broadway, Horton Foote. I'm in.
CG: Exactly. Exactly.
VW: She's amazing. She transforms. Seeing her all spiffed up, you forget for the past two weeks, she's been Mother Watts.
CG: When those doors close to the rehearsal hall, she's laughing, giggling, no-holds-barred, anything goes.
VW: She giggles so much. She giggles every day.
Cicely, what was it that appealed to you about the story?
CT: The one thing that appealed to me about the story is the lack of respect and honor given elders, and that more often than not, they find themselves, after a certain age, almost discarded. In [Carrie's] case, she is forced to live in a setting with a son and a daughter-in-law who really do not want her there. Here's a woman who was brought up in thousands of acres of land and free to do and go and be whatever, and suddenly she is forced to sleep in the living room on a day bed, and is treated like a maid by her daughter-in-law. I hope that [the audience] will have a lot more honor and respect for elders, and treat them better.
What is it about this piece that resonates with audiences today?
CG: The theme of the story: the family struggling to make ends meet… people having to downsize their living spaces, so they bring in their in-laws and the frustrations that will incur. I think it's very relevant today. The fact that the genre has changed to this black family, it feels like it has opened up to minorities as well, for people to just really identify with this family nucleus and how you deal with the struggles of what that all means.
VW: And also, it's an approach. Some people relish the past. Some people don't want to talk about the past. Some people can't wait to go home. Some people can't wait to leave home. So it's a nice juxtaposition to see two different points that are valid. Is one better than the other? Who knows?
Do you have a Bountiful that you want to return to?
VW: I live in my hometown, so I'm there every day, in Westchester. My kids went to the same high school I went to. My mother lives next door.
Almost like in the play…
VW: Not in the same house, but across the tennis court [laughs]. I have my own Bountiful.
CG: Good lord. [Laughs]