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Tyson, Cicely

Cicely Tyson

1933

Actress

In the minds of many, Cicely Tyson is the embodiment of black womanhood. A naturally gifted actress, she nonetheless worked diligently to learn all the nuances of her craft. Although strikingly beautiful, she has refused to get by on her looks, demanding instead to be judged on her professional abilities. Tyson is often given credit for inspiring black American women to embrace African standards of beauty, rather than trying to make themselves over in the image of white America.

In selecting scripts, she has consistently searched for those that will offer a positive image of people of color to the public, and in the process, she has "developed an artistic identity that does not ignore, but actively challenges the two major stereotypes of the black woman in film and drama: the roly-poly, desexed black mammy and the 'high yaller' femme fatale," according to Ms. Because of her choosiness, Tyson has not been a prolific actress, especially in the latter part of her career; few scripts meet her discriminating standards. But the quality of her workparticularly in the landmark films Sounder and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman has assured her of a reputation as one of America's finest dramatic performers.

Tyson was born in the borough of East Harlem, New York, to parents who had emigrated from Nevis, the smallest island in the Caribbean's Windward Island chain. The move to America brought no prosperity to the Tyson family. Cicely's father worked at carpentry, house painting, and whatever other odd jobs he could find; her mother worked as a housekeeper; and Cicely herself stood on the street-corners selling shopping bags to supplement the household income.

Nevertheless, they were forced to rely on welfare to survive, and the actress remembers that more often than not, they ate corn-meal mush for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Her mother sought to protect Cicely and her two siblings from the harshness of their environment by keeping them in church as much as possible and forbidding them to associate with the neighborhood children. But young Tyson loved to wander the city and explore its many possibilities, and she frequently hopped onto a bus or subway train and rode to the end of the line, just to see what was there.

Career Began in Modeling

After graduating from Charles Evans Hughes High School in Manhattan, Tyson landed a job as a secretary for the American Red Cross. The monotony of the work soon frustrated her, however. As she told Louie Robinson of Ebony, the day came when she stood up and shouted to her fellow office workers: "I know that God did not put me on the face of this earth to bang on a typewriter for the rest of my life!" Fate intervened a few days later. Tyson, who had always been meticulous about the care of her hair, was asked by her hairdresser to model one of his styles at a fashion show. Her striking presence prompted several onlookers to encourage her to look into a modeling career. Before long she was enrolled in the Barbara Watson Modeling School and was engaged in photo shoots during her lunch breaks from the Red Cross.

It wasn't long before she was able to leave office work behind, for she quickly became one of the top black models in the United States. She earned as much as $65 an houra considerable sum during the late 1950sand graced the covers of mainstream publications such as Vogue and Harper's Bazaar, as well as those of magazines specifically geared toward a black audience. But for all her success, modeling brought Tyson little satisfaction. "I felt like a machine," she once told a reporter for Time magazine.

Once again fate stepped in to move her along. Tyson was waiting in the offices of Ebony magazine for an appointment with fashion editor Freda DeKnight when she caught the eye of Evelyn Davis, a black character actress. Tyson related the encounter to Ms. : "When I walked by, [Davis] took one look at me and said, 'Lord, what a face!' She said I'd be perfect for a movie then in production called The Spectrum. It was about the problems between light-skinned and dark-skinned blacks. I auditioned for the part and I got it. Actually, the film was never released because the money ran outbut here I am."

Tyson's decision to take up acting led to a two-year rift between her and her mother, who considered movies sinful and had always forbidden her children to see them. But with characteristic determination, Tyson ignored all opposition to pursue her chosen goal. She studied at various acting schools, and briefly at New York University, but she had difficulty finding teachers who measured up to her demanding standards. Two who did were Lloyd Richards and Vinnette Carroll. Carroll recalled to Ms. : "There was never any doubt in my mind that Miss Cicelythat's my pet name for herwas going to make it. She had all the qualities needed: an enormous capacity for work (she seemed utterly driven) and for criticism (she was never thrown by it or immobilized). The most noticeable thing about her was her sense of herself. She was her own measuring stick. And she didn't look to the left or the right or talk about how unfair it was for blacks in the arts."

Brought her Talent to the Stage

In 1959 Tyson appeared in Carroll's Off-Broadway revival of the musical The Dark of the Moon, and in a Broadway variety show called Talent '59 ; she also understudied for Eartha Kitt in the role of Jolly Rivers in Jolly's Progress. Tyson landed a small part in the film Odds Against Tomorrow and a larger one in the courtroom drama Twelve Angry Men, which starred Henry Fonda. When she first auditioned for Twelve Angry Men, Tyson was told she was too chic to play the part of a girl from the slums, and was turned away. "I went home and got myself up in a costume that was out of this world," she recalled to Ms. "I found a skirt that was too big and botched up the hemline. Then I put on a dirty raincoat, sloppy shoes, an old hat, and mussed up my hair." When Tyson returned to the auditions, the office secretary didn't even want to let her in the door, but the casting agent was suitably impressed, and she was hired.

At a Glance...

Born on December 19, 1933, in New York, NY; daughter of William and Theodosia Tyson; married Miles Davis (a jazz musician), November 1981 (divorced). Education : Studied drama at New York University, Actors Studio, and with Vinnette Carroll and Lloyd Richards.

Career : Photographic model during the late 1950s; actress, 1959; Jewels of Unity jewelry line, designer, 1999.

Memberships : Co-founder, Dance Theater of Harlem; trustee, Human Family Institute, American Film Institute.

Awards : Vernon Rice Award, 1962, for The Blacks ; Vernon Rice Award, 1963, for Moon on a Rainbow Shawl ; Academy Award nomination for best actress, Atlanta Film Festival Award for best actress, and National Society of Film Critics Award for best actress, all 1972, all for Sounder ; Emmy Awards for best actress in a television special, and best actress of the year, 1974, for The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman ; Emmy Award, for outstanding supporting actress in a miniseries or a special, 1994, for Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All; Ellis Island Family Heritage Award for performance, 2003; also recipient of awards from NAACP, National Council of Negro Women, and National Federation of Black Women Business Owners in Washington. Name graces, Cicely Tyson School of Performing and Fine Arts, East Orange, NJ, 1995.

Addresses : Home Malibu Beach, CA. Office c/o Larry Thompson, 345 North Maple Dr., Suite 183, Beverly Hills, CA 90210.

In 1961 Tyson became one of the original cast members of the Off-Broadway production of Jean Genet's controversial drama The Blacks. She was in good company: that first cast also included James Earl Jones, Maya Angelou, Lou Gossett, Jr., Godfrey Cambridge, and Raymond St. Jacques. Tyson played a prostitute named Virtue, and her stunning performance won her a Vernon Rice Award in 1962. Her other New York theater work included Cool World, God's Trombones, Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright, The Blue Boy in Black, and Carry Me Back to Morningside Heights. She was willing to try almost any sort of role, but steadfastly refused to sing or dance: although perfectly capable of both, she felt that blacks were never expected to do anything else, and wished to break away from that stereotype.

In the early 1960s, Tyson became one of the few black faces to be seen regularly on television. Actor George C. Scott had admired her work in The Blacks and asked her to play a continuing role in his television series East Side/West Side, a CBS-TV series about social workers. The short, natural hairstyle she wore in that show caused a sensation and is often singled out as the beginnings of the Afro trend. According to Ms., "the first young black actress to face film and television cameras with hair unstraightened...provoked a not-too-minor earthquake within the American minds of young black women.... All black women needed was some public person to take the first step toward a more positive identification with African beauty. And that person was Cicely Tyson." Donald Bogle, author of Blacks in American Film and Television, commented: "Tyson was a striking figure: slender and intense with near-perfect bone structure, magnificent smooth skin, dark penetrating eyes, and a regal air that made her seem a woman of convictions and commitment. [Audiences] sensed...her power and range.... Watching the young Tyson, one often has the feeling that, through the turn of a line or a look or gesture, at any moment something extraordinary could happen."

Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s Tyson was a frequent guest star on television, appearing in I Spy, Naked City, The Nurses, The Bill Cosby Show, and many other programs. Her film career progressed more slowly. She played the love interest to Sammy Davis, Jr.'s jazz musician character in the 1966 movie A Man Called Adam, appeared in The Comedians in 1967, and turned in an affecting, if brief, performance as a doctor's rebellious daughter in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter in 1968. But by then, the film industry was entering the period of so- called "blaxploitation" films, which Tyson considered depressing and demeaning. According to People Tyson said "she would rather be unemployed than act in exploitation films like Shaft and Superfly, " adding that "The lesser of two evils for me is to wait, rather than do something that isn't right." For nearly six years, she hardly appeared before the cameras at all, with the exception of an occasional television guest spot. There were no parts being offered that she felt were worth takingand she was even ready to forsake her acting career altogether, if it came to that.

Fortunately, it didn't. Some six years after beginning work on The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, Tyson was offered the role of Rebecca Morgan in the film adaptation of William H. Armstrong's novel Sounder. The story was a major departure from standard Hollywood fare of that time in that it depicted a black family in the Depression-era South with dignity and sensitivity. Tyson's Rebecca is a sharecropper's wife who is forced to carry on alone after her husband is jailed for stealing a piece of meat to feed his family. "Cicely Tyson is superb," enthused Jay Cocks in his Time review of the film. "It falls to her not only to display warmth toward her family but also to show such shreds of defiance and muted fury [against] a world that has always threatened to grind her down. For its range and its richness, and for its carefully portioned power, it is an indelible performance."

Showed Audiences the Beauty of Black Women

As it had in East Side/West Side, Tyson's hairstyle provoked a great deal of comment. In Sounder, she appeared in cornrows, long associated with degrading caricatures of southern blacks, and she was praised for elevating this traditional style to a new level of acceptability. Ellen Holly, a reviewer for the New York Times, commented: "Tyson has always been a lovely actress, easily capable of enameled glamour when it is called for. But here...she passes all of her easy beauty by to give us, at long last, some sense of the profound beauty of millions of black women."

Ms. declared that Tyson had broken new ground in the portrayal of black motherhood: "Before Cicely Tyson's internationally acclaimed portrayal of Rebecca...the three major exceptions to the black mother as mammy were Louise Beavers and Louise Stubbs in the two versions of Imitation of Life in 1934 and 1959 respectively, and Ethel Waters in Pinky, a controversial film of 1949. Even these two stories were less than redeeming. In both, the black child was a fair-skinned daughter passing for white.... These celluloid mulattoes were often played by white actresses and interpreted as likeable, but doomed by that awful drop of black blood.... Cicely Tyson's Rebecca was different. Through her, the American audience was introduced to a typical black mother and wife; hard-working, resilient, vigilant, and above all, sensitive."

The critical acclaim over Sounder had not yet died away when Tyson turned in another world-class performance in the title role of the television drama The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. This fictional account, adapted from the novel by Ernest J. Gaines, follows the life of a 110-year-old woman from her childhood in slavery to her old age, when she becomes an active participant in the civil rights movement. The role required Tyson to age some 90 years. An astounding make-up job helped her to achieve this feat, but it could not have been successful without her masterful acting skills. She showed her dedication to the project by enduring as much as six hours of make-up application, then working for up to seven hours in front of the cameras.

The finished film was a triumph that delivered a powerful statement about the struggle of African Americans to achieve economic and political self-determination. Ms. characterized Tyson's acting as "almost eerie in its accuracy. Every gesture was right on targetfrom the way she walked to the white drinking fountain, her head and hands trembling only from age, to the way she held her mouth as she drank, chewing slightly as if her bridge did not fit properly." New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael declared: "She's an actress, all right, and as tough-minded and honorable in her methods as any we've got."

Tyson's performances in Sounder and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman won her many accolades, but the entertainment industry itself had changed but little. She continued to seek out challenging, meaningful roles, but few existed for a serious black actress. She gave a very brief performance in the television miniseries Roots as Kunta Kinte's mother, portrayed real-life Chicago educator Marva Collins in The Marva Collins Story, paid tribute to Martin Luther King in the mini-series King, and worked with several other top black actresses in The Women of Brewster Place.

Yet while television offered Tyson more topical material than that being treated in feature films, "sometimes the standard TV-ish quality of TV films...seemed to strand her," in the opinion of Bogle. He continued: "In some cases, too, she appeared either miscast as in King or stuck with a script's undeveloped character as in Roots. Other times as in The Marva Collins Story (1981), she...injected spirit into what was essentially a formula film.... It became distressing to see her cast in meaningless supporting roles in disappointing projects: Acceptable Risks (1986) and Intimate Encounters (1986). Still even here it was interesting and oddly compelling to watch her struggling to invest such material with some intelligence and dramatic flair. She remained a major American dramatic actress for whom the film and then television industries rarely provided the kind of support system (and acting plums) accorded such white stars as Jane Fonda and Meryl Streep." Tyson described her dilemma to the Bergen County Record: "I'm a woman, and I'm black. I wait for rolesfirst, to be written for a woman, then, to be written for a black woman. And then," she added, "I have the audacity to be selective about the kinds of roles I play. I've really got three strikes against me. So, aren't you amazed I'm still here?"

Continued Acting and Supporting the Arts

Even when a lack of good roles limited her work before the camera, Tyson continued to work diligently on behalf of the arts in the black community, devoting at least one month out of each year to touring colleges on speaking engagements, an activity that once prompted her to comment to an Ebony interviewer: "I'm appalled at the lethargy and the lack of incentive and motivation among the youth.... I feel there's a great need, especially for the youth, for positive images." One of her most significant contributions to black culture in America was the founding of the Dance Theater of Harlem, which she accomplished in cooperation with Arthur Mitchell. This organization recruits its members from local public schools, provides classical dance training, and gives students the opportunity to perform at national venues. For all her efforts, Tyson became a respected role model for youth. In honor of her dedication to her craft and to others, her name has graced a magnet school in East Orange, New Jersey, the Cicely Tyson School of Performing and Fine Arts, since 1995.

The 1990s and 2000s found Tyson back on the large and small screens in several highly acclaimed projects. She wowed critics and fans alike with her stunning portrayals of strong black women in the motion pictures Fried Green Tomatoes, Hoodlum, and Because of Winn-Dixie, and the television miniseries Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, for which she won another Emmy. As with the early years of her career, Tyson found more television than film work, and appeared in such television features as Sweet Justice, in which she played a gutsy southern lawyer; Road to Galveston, in which she portrayed a fictionalized story of a woman who realizes her dreams after being widowed; A Lesson Before Dying, in which she portrayed the aunt of a man sentenced to death for a crime he didn't commit; and The Rosa Parks Story, in which she played Parks' strong, supportive mother.

Despite her many successes, Tyson refused to rest on her laurels. "I think of myself as a work-in-progress to this day," Tyson told the Bergen County Record. Well into her seventies, she continued to seek out interesting and challenging roles. Her reasoning, as she described to the Bergen County Record, was attributable to her belief that "the day I ever feel I have attained greatness I will be finished. It means I have in fact stopped myself from developing."

Tyson's personal life is marked by the same type of discipline that typifies her acting. She is dedicated to physical fitness and eats a strict vegetarian diet with no caffeine or alcohol. She was married to jazz musician Miles Davis for a time; rumors have also circulated for years that she has two children, but the actress herself has refused to confirm or deny them. On the whole, she has been unusually successful in keeping the details of her life private and in forcing the public to judge her solely on the value of her work. And her body of work has won her a place among the most important black performers of the twentieth century. The Houston Chronicle describes Tyson as "like a chicken fried steak smothered in cream gravy. She's Southern comfort foodfamiliar, delicious, searing, satisfying. Her performances always hit the spot," adding that "She holds the patent for portraying struggling black women who make successes of themselves." As Ms. concluded, "She has an image that spans not only race, but the ideological differences among blacks themselves."

Selected works

Films

Twelve Angry Men, 1957.

Odds Against Tomorrow, 1959.

A Man Called Adam, 1966.

The Comedians, 1967.

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, 1968.

Sounder, 1972.

The Blue Bird, 1976.

The River Niger, 1976.

Fried Green Tomatoes, 1991.

Hoodlum, 1997.

Because of Winn-Dixie, 2005.

Diary of a Mad Black Woman, 2005.

Plays

The Dark of the Moon, 1959.

Talent '59, 1959.

The Blacks, 1961.

Moon on a Rainbow Shawl, 1962.

Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright, 1962.

The Blue Boy in Black, 1963.

Carry Me Back to Morningside Heights, 1968.

Television

East Side/West Side, 1963.

The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, 1974.

Just an Old Sweet Song, 1976.

Roots, 1977.

Wilma, 1977.

A Woman Called Moses, 1978.

King, 1978.

The Marva Collins Story, 1981.

Acceptable Risks, 1986.

Intimate Encounters, 1986.

The Women of Brewster Place, 1989.

Duplicates, 1992.

House of Secrets, 1993.

Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, 1994.

Sweet Justice, 1994.

Road to Galveston, 1996.

Bridge of Time, 1997.

Riot, 1997.

The Price of Heaven, 1997.

Ms. Scrooge, 1997.

Always Outnumbered, 1998.

Mama Flora's Family, 1998.

A Lesson Before Dying, 1999.

Aftershock: Earthquake in New York, 1999.

Jewel, 2001.

The Rosa Parks Story, 2002.

Sources

Books

Bogle, Donald, Blacks in American Film and Television, Garland, 1988, pp. 472-473.

Notable Women in the American Theater, Greenwood, 1989.

Periodicals

Ebony, May 1974; February 1981, pp. 124-132.

Houston Chronicle, January 24, 1996.

Interview, September 1997, p. 102.

Jet, October 28, 1985, pp. 60-62; December 19, 1994, p. 8.

Ms., August 1974.

New York, March 23, 1992, p. 62.

New Yorker, January 28, 1974.

New York Times, October 1, 1972; October 15, 1972.

People, May 31, 1999.

Record (Bergen County, NJ), August 27, 1997; March 11, 1998.

Time, October 9, 1972, p. 58.

Variety, March 23, 1992, p. 35.

Joan Goldsworthy and Sara Pendergast

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Tyson, Cicely 1933–

Cicely Tyson 1933

Actress

At a Glance

Broke into Acting

Revolutionary Look for Television

A New Definition of Black Womanhood

An Acting Tour de Force

Sources

In the minds of many, Cicely Tyson is the embodiment of black womanhood. A naturally gifted actress, she nonetheless worked diligently to learn all the nuances of her craft. Although strikingly beautiful, she has refused to get by on her looks, demanding instead to be judged on her professional abilities. Tyson is often given credit for inspiring black American women to embrace African standards of beauty, rather than trying to make themselves over in the image of white America.

In selecting scripts, she has consistently searched for those that will offer a positive image of people of color to the public, and in the process, she has developed an artistic identity that does not ignore, but actively challenges the two major stereotypes of the black woman in film and drama: the roly-poly, desexed black mammy and the high yaller femme fatale, according to Ms. writer Yvonne. Because of her choosiness, Tyson has not been a prolific actress; especially in the latter part of her career; few scripts meet her discriminating standards. But the quality of her workparticularly in the landmark films Sounder and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman has assured her of a reputation as one of Americas finest dramatic performers.

Tyson was bom in East Harlem to parents who had immigrated from Nevis, the smallest island in the Caribbeans Windward Island chain. The move to America brought no prosperity to the Ty-son family. Cicelysfatherworked at carpentry, house painting, and whatever other odd jobs he could find; her mother worked as a housekeeper; and Cicely herself stood on the street-corners selling shopping bags to supplement the household income.

Nevertheless, they were forced to rely on welfare to survive, and the actress remembers that more often than not, they ate corn-meal mush for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Her mother sought to protect Cicely and her two siblings from the harshness of their environment by keeping them in church as much as possible and forbidding them to associate with the neighborhood children. But young Tyson loved to wander the city and explore its many possibilities, and she frequently hopped onto a bus or subway train and rode to the end of the line, just to see what was there.

After graduating from Charles Evans Hughes High School in Manhattan, Tyson landed a job as a secretary for the

At a Glance

Born December 19, 1933, in New York, NY; daughter of William and Theodosia Tyson; married Miles Davis (a jazz musician), November 1981 (divorced). Education: Studied drama at New York University, Actors Studio, and with Vinnette Carroll and Lloyd Richards.

Photographic model during the late 1950s; actress, 1959. Stage credits include Talent 59; The Dark of the Moon; The Blacks; Moon on a Rainbow Shawl; Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright; The Blue Boy in Black; and Carry Me Back to Morningside Heights. Film credits include Twelve Angry Men, 1957; Odds Against Tomorrow, 1959; A Man Called Adam, 1966; The Comedians, 1967; The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, 1968; Sounder, 1972; The Blue Bird, 1976; The River Niger, 1976; Fried Green Tomatoes, 1991. Television credits include East Side/West Side, 1963; The Autobiography of Miss tene Pitman, 1974; Just an Old Sweet Song, 1976; Roots, 1977; Wilma, 1977; A Woman Called Moses, 1978; King, 1978; The Marva Coilins Story, 1981; Acceptable Risks, 1986; Intimate Encounters, 1986; The Women of Brewster Place, 1989; Duplicates, 1992; House of Secrets, 1993; Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, 1994; and Sweet Justice, 1994. Co-founder, Dance Theater of Harlem; trustee, Human Family Institute, American Film Institute.

Awards: Vernon Rice Award, 1962, for The Blacks, and 1963, for Moon on a Rainbow Shawl; Academy Award nomination for best actress, Atlanta Film Festival Award for best actress, and National Society of Film Critics Award for best actress, all 1972, all for Sounder; Emmy Award for best actress in a television special, 1974, for The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman; also recipient of awards from NAACP and National Council of Negro Women.

Addresses: Home Malibu Beach, CA. Office c/o Larry Thompson, 345 North Maple Dr., Suite 183, Beverly Hills, CA 90210.

American Red Cross. The monotony of the work soon frustrated her, however. As she told Louie Robinson of Ebony, the day came when she stood up and shouted to her fellow office workers: I know that God did not put me on the face of this earth to bang on a typewriter for the rest of my life! Fate intervened a few days later. Tyson, who had always been meticulous about the care of her hair, was asked by her hairdresser to model one of his styles at a fashion show. Her striking presence prompted several onlookers to encourage her to look into a modeling career. Before long she was enrolled in the Barbara Watson Modeling School and was engaged in photo shoots during her lunch breaks from the Red Cross.

It wasnt long before she was able to leave office work behind, for she quickly became one of the top black models in the United States. She earned as much as $65 an houra considerable sum during the late 1950sand graced the covers of mainstream publications such as Vogue and Harpers Bazaar, as well as those of magazines specifically geared toward a black audience. But for all her success, modeling brought her little satisfaction. I felt like a machine, she once told a reporter for Time magazine.

Once again fate stepped in to move her along. Tyson was waiting in the offices of Ebony magazine to go to an appointment with fashion editor Freda DeKnight when she caught the eye of Evelyn Davis, a black character actress. Tyson related the encounter to Yvonne: When I walked by, [Davis] took one look at me and said, Lord, what a face! She said Id be perfect for a movie then in production called The Spectrum. It was about the problems between light-skinned and dark-skinned blacks. I auditioned for the part and I got it. Actually, the film was never released because the money ran outbut here I am.

Broke into Acting

Tysons decision to take up acting led to a two-year rift between her and her mother, who considered movies sinful and had always forbidden her children to see them. But with characteristic determination, Tyson ignored all opposition to pursue her chosen goal. She studied at various acting schools, and briefly at New York University, but she had difficulty finding teachers who measured up to her demanding standards. Two who did were Lloyd Richards and Vinnette Carroll. Carroll recalled to Yvonne: There was never any doubt in my mind that Miss Cicely thats my pet name for herwas going to make it. She had all the qualities needed: an enormous capacity for work (she seemed utterly driven) and for criticism (she was never thrown by it or immobilized). The most noticeable thing about her was her sense of herself. She was her own measuring stick. And she didnt look to the left or the right or talk about how unfair it was for blacks in the arts.

In 1959 Tyson appeared in Carrolls Off-Broadway revival of the musical The Dark of the Moon, and in a Broadway variety show called Talent 59; she also understudied for Eartha Kitt in the role of Jolly Rivers in Jollys Progress. Tyson landed a small part in the film Odds Against Tomorrow and a larger one in the courtroom drama Twelve Angry Men, which starred Henry Fonda. When she first auditioned for Twelve Angry Men, Tyson was told she was too chic to play the part of a girl from the slums, and was turned away. I went home and got myself up in a costume that was out of this world, she recalled to Yvonne. I found a skirt that was too big and botched up the hemline. Then I put on a dirty raincoat, sloppy shoes, an old hat, and mussed up my hair. When Tyson returned to the auditions, the office secretary didnt even want to let her in the door, but the casting agent was suitably impressed, and she was hired.

In 1961 Tyson became one of the original cast members of the Off-Broadway production of Jean Genets controversial drama The Blacks. She was in good company: that first cast also included James Earl Jones, Maya Angelou, Lou Gossett, Jr., Godfrey Cambridge, and Raymond St. Jacques. Tyson played a prostitute named Virtue, and her stunning performance won her a Vernon Rice Award in 1962. Her other New York theater work included Cool World, Gods Trombones, Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright, The Blue Boy in Black, and Carry Me Back to Morning-side Heights. She was willing to try almost any sort of role, but steadfastly refused to sing or dance: although perfectly capable of both, she felt that blacks were never expected to do anything else, and wished to break away from that stereotype.

Revolutionary Look for Television

In the early 1960s, Tyson became one of the few black faces to be seen regularly on television. Actor George C. Scott had admired her work in The Blacks and asked her to play a continuing role in his television series East Side/ West Side, a CBS-TV series about social workers. The short, natural hairstyle she wore in that show caused a sensation and is often singled out as the beginnings of the Afro trend. According to Yvonne, the first young black actress to face film and television cameras with hair unstraightened provoked a not-too-minor earthquake within the American minds of young black women. All black women needed was some public person to take the first step toward a more positive identification with African beauty. And that person was Cicely Tyson. Donald Bogle, author of Blacks in American Film and Television, commented: Tyson was a striking figure: slender and intense with near-perfect bone structure, magnificent smooth skin, dark penetrating eyes, and a regal air that made her seem a woman of convictions and commitment. [Audiences] sensed her power and range. Watching the young Tyson, one often has the feeling that, through the turn of a line or a look or gesture, at any moment something extraordinary could happen.

Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s Tyson was a frequent guest star on television, appearing in l Spy, Naked City, The Nurses, The Bill Cosby Show, and many other programs. Her film career progressed more slowly. She played the love interest to Sammy Davis, Jr.s jazz musician character in the 1966 movie A Man Called Adam, appeared in The Comedians in 1967, and turned in an affecting, if brief, performance as a doctors rebellious daughter in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter in 1968. But by then, the film industry was entering the period of so-called blaxploitation films, which Tyson considered depressing and demeaning. For nearly six years, she hardly appeared before the cameras at all, with the exception of an occasional television guest spot. There was no parts being offered that she felt were worth takingand she was even ready to forsake her acting career altogether, if it came to that.

A New Definition of Black Womanhood

Fortunately, it didnt. Some six years after beginning work on The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, Tyson was offered the role of Rebecca Morgan in the film adaptation of William H. Armstrongs novel Sounder. The story was a major departure from standard Hollywood fare of that time in that it depicted a black family in the Depression-era South with dignity and sensitivity. Tysons Rebecca is a sharecroppers wife who is forced to carry on alone after her husband is jailed for stealing a piece of meat to feed his family. Cicely Tyson is superb, enthused Jay Cocks in his Time review of the film. It falls to her not only to display warmth toward her family but also to show such shreds of defiance and muted fury [against] a world that has always threatened to grind her down. For its range and its richness, and for its carefully portioned power, it is an indelible performance.

As it had in East Side/West Side, Tysons hairstyle provoked a great deal of comment. In Sounder, she appeared in comrows, long associated with degrading caricatures of southern blacks, and she was praised for elevating this traditional style to a new level of acceptability. Ellen Holly, a reviewer for the New York Times, commented: Tyson has always been a lovely actress, easily capable of enameled glamour when it is called for. But here she passes all of her easy beauty by to give us, at long last, some sense of the profound beauty of millions of black women.

Yvonne declared that Tyson had broken new ground in the portrayal of black motherhood: Before Cicely Tysons internationally acclaimed portrayal of Rebecca the three major exceptions to the black mother as mammy were Louise Beavers and Louise Stubbs in the two versions of Imitation of Life in 1934 and 1959 respectively, and Ethel Waters in Pinky, a controversial film of 1949. Even these two stories were less than redeeming. In both, the black child was a fair-skinned daughter passing for white. These celluloid mulattoes were often played by white actresses and interpreted as likeable, but doomed by that awful drop of black blood. Cicely Tysons Rebecca was different. Through her, the American audience was introduced to a typical black mother and wife; hard-working, resilient, vigilant, and above all, sensitive.

An Acting Tour de Force

The critical acclaim over Sounder had not yet died away when Tyson turned in another world-class performance in the title role of the television drama The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. This fictional account, adapted from the novel by Ernest J. Gaines, follows the life of a 110-year-old woman from her childhood in slavery to her old age, when she becomes an active participant in the civil rights movement. The role required Tyson to age some 90 years. An astounding make-up job helped her to achieve this feat, but it could not have been successful without her masterful acting skills. She showed her dedication to the project by enduring as much as six hours of make-up application, then working for up to seven hours in front of the cameras.

The finished film was a triumph that delivered a powerful statement about the struggle of African Americans to achieve economic and political self-determination. Yvonne characterized Tysons acting as almost eerie in its accuracy. Every gesture was right on targetfrom the way she walked to the white drinking fountain, her head and hands trembling only from age, to the way she held her mouth as she drank, chewing slightly as if her bridge did not fit properly. New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael declared: Shes an actress, all right, and as tough minded and honorable in her methods as any weve got.

Tysons performances in Sounder and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman won her many accolades, but the entertainment industry itself had changed but little. She continued to seek out challenging, meaningful roles, but few existed for a serious black actress. She gave a very brief performance in the television mini-series Roots as Kunta Kintes mother, portrayed real-life Chicago educator Marva Collins in The Marva Collins Story, paid tribute to Martin Luther King in the mini-series King, and worked with several other top black actresses in The Women of Brewster Place.

Yet while television offered Tyson more topical material than that being treated in feature films, sometimes the standard TV-ish quality of TV films seemed to strand her, in the opinion of Bogle. He continued: In some cases, too, she appeared either miscast as in King or stuck with a scripts undeveloped character as in Roots. Other times as in The Marva Collins Story (1981), she injected spirit into what was essentially a formula film. It became distressing to see her cast in meaningless supporting roles in disappointing projects: Acceptable Risks (1986) and Intimate Encounters (1986). Still even here it was interesting and oddly compelling to watch her struggling to invest such material with some intelligence and dramatic flair. She remained a major American dramatic actress for whom the film and then television industries rarely provided the kind of support system (and acting plums) accorded such white stars as Jane Fonda and Meryl Streep.

Even when a lack of good roles limited her work before the camera, Tyson continued to work diligently on behalf of the arts in the black community, devoting at least one month out of each year to touring colleges on speaking engagements, an activity that once prompted her to comment to an Ebony interviewer: Im appalled at the lethargy and the lack of incentive and motivation among the youth. I feel theres a great need, especially for the youth, for positive images. One of her most significant contributions to black culture in America was the founding of the Dance Theater of Harlem, which she accomplished in cooperation with Arthur Mitchell. This organization recruits its members from local public schools, provides classical dance training, and gives students the opportunity to perform at national venues.

The 1990s found Tyson back on the large and small screens in several highly acclaimed projects. She wowed critics and fans alike with her stunning portrayals of strong black women in the motion picture Fried Green Tomatoes and the television miniseries Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. And an NBC-TV drama series titled Sweet Justice, featuring Tyson as a gutsy southern lawyer, was scheduled for the 1994 fall line-up.

Tysons personal life is marked by the same type of discipline that typifies her acting. She is dedicated to physical fitness and eats a strict vegetarian diet with no caffeine or alcohol. She was married to jazz musician Miles Davis for a time; rumors have also circulated for years that she has two children, but the actress herself has refused to confirm or deny them. On the whole, she has been unusually successful in keeping the details of her life private and in forcing the public to judge her solely on the value of her work. And her body of work has won her a place among the most important black performers of the twentieth century. As Yvonne concluded, She has an image that spans not only race, but the ideological differences among blacks themselves.

Sources

Books

Bogle, Donald, Blacks in American Film and Television, Garland, 1988, pp. 472-473.

Notable Women in the American Theater, Greenwood, 1989.

Periodicals

Ebony, May 1974; February 1981, pp. 124-432.

Jet, October 28, 1985, pp. 60-62.

Ms., August 1974.

New York, March 23, 1992, p. 62.

New Yorker, January 28, 1974.

New York Times, October 1, 1972; October 15, 1972.

Time, October 9, 1972, p. 58.

Variety, March 23, 1992, p. 35.

Joan Goldsworthy

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Tyson, Cicely 1933–

Tyson, Cicely 1933–

PERSONAL

Born December 19, 1933, in New York, NY; daughter of William and Theodosia Tyson; married Miles Davis (an actor), 1981 (divorced, 1988). Education: Attended New York University; trained for the stage at the Actors Studio.

Addresses: Agent—Creative Artists Agency, 9830 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, CA 90212-1825.

Career: Actress and singer. Worked as a secretary and model; cofounder, Dance Theatre of Harlem. Active with UNICEF and NAACP. Member of board of directors of Urban Gateways, American Film Institute, and Cicely Tyson School of Performing and Fine Arts, East Orange, NJ.

Awards, Honors: Vernon Price Award, Drama Desk Awards, 1962; NBR Award, best actress, National Board of Review of Motion Pictures, NSFC Award, best actress, National Society of Film Critics, Academy Award nomination, best actress in a leading role, Golden Globe Award nomination, best motion picture actress—drama, Atlanta Film Festival, best actress award, 1972, Kansas City Film Critics Circle Award, best actress, 1973, all for Sounder; Emmy Award nomination, outstanding lead actress in a limited series, 1978, for King; Emmy Awards, outstanding actress in a special and outstanding actress of the year, both 1973, Film Award nomination, best actress, British Academy of Film and Television Arts, 1975, for The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman; Emmy Award nomination, outstanding single performance by a supporting actress in a comedy or drama series, 1977, for Roots; Inducted into Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame, 1977; Emmy Award nomination, outstanding lead actress in a limited series or a special, Image Award, best performance by an actress, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, 1982, for The Marva Collins Story; Crystal Award, Women in Film, 1982; Image Award, outstanding lead actress, 1988, for Samaritan: The Mitch Snyder Story; CableACE Award, actress in a movie or miniseries, National Cable Television Association, 1991, for Heat Wave; Emmy Award, outstanding supporting actress in a miniseries or special, 1994, Screen Actors Guild Award nomination, outstanding performance by a female actor in a television movie or miniseries, 1995, both for The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All; Emmy Award nomination, outstanding lead actress in a drama series, Screen Actors Guild Award nomination, outstanding performance by a female actor in a drama series, 1995, Image Award nomination, outstanding lead actress in a drama series, 1996, all for Sweet Justice; CableACE Award nomination, actress in a movie or miniseries, Lone Star Film and Television Award, best television actress, Dallas/Fort Worth Film Critics Association, 1996, Image Award nomination, outstanding lead actress in a television movie or miniseries, Screen Actors Guild Award nomination, outstanding performance by a female actor in a television movie or miniseries, 1997, all for The Road to Galveston; Honored with a Star on the Holly-wood Walk of Fame, 1997; CableACE nomination, best supporting actress in a movie or miniseries, 1997, for Riot; Black Film Award, best actress, Acapulco Black Film Festival, Image Award nomination, outstanding supporting actress in a motion picture, 1998, both for Hoodlum; Emmy Award nomination, outstanding supporting actress in a miniseries or movie, 1999, Image Award nomination, outstanding actress in a television movie, miniseries, or dramatic special, Black Reel Award, network/cable—best supporting actress, 2000, for A Lesson Before Dying; Image Award, outstanding lead actress in a television movie, miniseries, or dramatic special, 1999, for Mama Flora's Family; National Council of Negro Woman Award; Capitol Press Award; awarded honorary doctorates from Atlanta University, Loyola University and Lincoln University; Living Legend Award, Trumpet Awards, 2002; Black Reel Award, network/cable—best supporting actress, 2003, for The Rosa Parks Story; Comedy Award nomination, outstanding supporting actress in a theatrical film, Black Entertainment Television, 2005, for Diary of a Mad Black Woman.

CREDITS

Stage Appearances:

(New York debut) Jolly Rivers, Jolly's Progress, Longacre Theatre, 1959.

Girl, The Cool World, Eugene O'Neill Theatre, New York City, 1960.

Stephanie Virtue Diop, The Blacks, St. Mark's Play-house, New York City, 1961.

Mavis, Moon on a Rainbow Shawl, East 11th Street Theatre, New York City, 1962.

Celeste Chipley, Tiger Tiger Burning Bright, Booth Theatre, New York City, 1962.

Joan, The Blue Boy in Black, Masque Theatre, New York City, 1963.

Reverend Marion Alexander, Trumpets of the Lord, Astor Place Playhouse, New York City, 1963.

A Hand Is on the Gates, Longacre Theatre, New York City, 1966.

Myrna Jessup, Carry Me Back to Morningside Heights, John Golden Theatre, New York City, 1968.

Reverend Marion Alexander, Trumpets of the Lord, Brooks Atkinson Theatre, New York City, 1969.

To Be Young, Gifted and Black, Cherry Land Theatre, New York City, 1969.

The Blacks, Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, Cincinnati, OH, 1970–71.

Abbie Putnam, Desire Under the Elms, Academy Festival, Chicago, IL, 1974.

Miss Moffat, The Corn Is Green, Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, New York City, 1983.

Film Appearances:

Twelve Angry Men (also known as 12 Angry Men), Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1957.

(Uncredited) Carib Gold, 1957.

Fra, Odds Against Tomorrow, United Artists, 1959.

Girl left on porch, The Last Angry Man, Columbia, 1959.

Claudia Ferguson, A Man Called Adam, Embassy, 1966.

Marie Therese, The Comedians (also known as Les Comediens), Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1967.

Portia, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, Warner Bros., 1968.

Neighbors, 1971.

Wednesday Night Out, 1972.

Rebecca Morgan, Sounder, Twentieth Century-Fox, 1972.

The cat, The Blue Bird (also known as Sinyaya ptitsa), Twentieth Century-Fox, 1976.

Mattie Williams, The River Niger, Cine Artists, 1976.

Sweets, A Hero Ain't Nothin' But a Sandwich, New World, 1978.

Elaine Gilbert, Airport '79 (also known as Airport '80—The Concorde, The Concorde—Airport '79, The Concorde Affair and S.O.S. Concorde), Universal, 1979.

Vivian Perry, Bustin' Loose, Universal, 1981.

Sipsey, Fried Green Tomatoes (also known as Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe), Universal, 1991.

Host, Flight to Freedom (also known as Flight to Freedom: The Underground Railroad), 1995.

Madame Stephanie "The Queen" St. Clair, Hoodlum (also known as Gangster and Hoods), Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/United Artists, 1997.

The Double Dutch Divas!, 2001.

Gloria, Because of Winn-Dixie, Twentieth Century-Fox, 2005.

Myrtle, Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Lions Gate, 2005.

Idlewild, Universal, 2006.

Madea's Family Reunion, Lions Gate, 2006.

Celine, Fat Rose and Squeaky, Etc…. Group, 2005.

Television Appearances; Series:

Jane Foster, East Side/West Side, CBS, 1963–64.

Martha Frazier, Guiding Light, CBS, 1966.

Carrie Grace Battle, Sweet Justice, NBC, 1994–95.

Television Appearances: Miniseries:

Binta, Roots, ABC, 1977.

Coretta Scott King, King, NBC, 1978.

Harriet Ross Tubman, A Woman Called Moses, NBC, 1978.

Castalia, The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, CBS, 1994.

Mama Flora Palmer, Mama Flora's Family, CBS, 1998.

Emily Lincoln, Aftershock: Earthquake in New York, CBS, 1999.

Television Appearances; Movies:

Emma Teasley, Marriage: Year One, NBC, 1971.

Miss Jane Pittman, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, CBS, 1974.

Young girl, Free to Be … You & Me, 1974.

Priscilla Simmons, Just an Old Sweet Song (also known as Down Home), CBS, 1976.

Blanche Rudolph, Wilma, NBC, 1977.

Marva Collins, The Marva Collins Story (also known as Welcome to Success: The Marva Collins Story), CBS, 1981.

Odessa, Benny's Place, ABC, 1982.

Carol Phillips, Playing with Fire, NBC, 1985.

Muriel, Samaritan: The Mitch Snyder Story, CBS, 1986.

Dr. Claire Dalton, Intimate Encounters (also known as Encounters and Encounters in the Night), NBC, 1986.

Janet Framm, Acceptable Risks, ABC, 1986.

Mrs. Browne, The Women of Brewster Place, ABC, 1989.

Etta Lewison, The Kid Who Loved Christmas (also known as The Boy Who Loved Christmas), syndicated, 1990.

Ruth Hastings, Winner Takes All, 1990.

Ruthana Richardson, Heat Wave (also known as Burn, Baby, Burn), TNT, 1990.

Donna, Clippers, 1991.

Dr. Lila Randolph, Duplicates, USA Network, 1992.

Sarah, When No One Would Listen (also known as My Husband Is Going to Kill Me), CBS, 1992.

Evangeline, House of Secrets (also known as Conspiracy of Terror), NBC, 1993.

Jordan Roosevelt, The Road to Galveston, USA Network, 1996.

The guardian, Bridge of Time, ABC, 1997.

Maggie, Riot (also known as Riot in the Streets), Showtime, 1997.

Vesta Battle, The Price of Heaven (also known as Blessed Assurance), 1997.

Title role, Ms. Scrooge, USA Network, 1997.

Luvia, Always Outnumbered, HBO, 1998.

Tante Lou, A Lesson Before Dying, HBO, 1999.

Cathedral, Jewel, CBS, 2001.

Leona, The Rosa Parks Story, CBS, 2002.

Television Appearances; Episodic:

Tony, "The Bitter Cup," Frontiers of Faith, 1961.

"Frieda," The Nurses, CBS, 1962.

"Circle of Choice," The Nurses, CBS, 1963.

"Howard Running Bear Is a Turtle," Naked City, ABC, 1963.

"Question: Who Are You Taking to the Main Event, Eddie?," Slattery's People, CBS, 1965.

"So Long, Patrick Henry," I Spy, NBC, 1965.

"Trial by Treehouse," I Spy, NBC, 1966.

"Tomorrow on the Wind," Cowboy in Africa, ABC, 1967.

"Commitment," Judd, for the Defense, ABC, 1967.

Julie Harmon, "The Enemies," The F.B.I., ABC, 1968.

"The Last Ten Yards," Medical Center, CBS, 1969.

"Silent Partners," The F.B.I., ABC, 1969.

"Johnny Ghost," On Being Black, syndicated, 1969.

"Guess Who's Coming to Lunch?," The Courtship of Ed-die's Father, ABC, 1969.

"A Bride for Obie Brown," Here Come the Brides, ABC, 1970.

"The Blind Date," The Bill Cosby Show, NBC, 1970.

Alma Ross, "Death Squad," Mission: Impossible, CBS, 1970.

Rachel Biggs, "The Scavengers," Gunsmoke, CBS, 1970.

"The Bird on the Mast," Insight, syndicated, 1971.

"Neighbors," Hollywood Television Theater, PBS, 1971.

"Crash," Emergency!, NBC, 1972.

The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, NBC, 1972.

The Flip Wilson Show, 1973.

Host, Saturday Night Live, NBC, 1979.

"Rosa Parks," An American Portrait, CBS, 1985.

Guest, At Rona's, NBC, 1989.

Ruth Hastings, "Winner Takes All," B. L. Stryker, ABC, 1990.

The Arsenio Hall Show, syndicated, 1994.

Interviewee, "Sidney Poitier: The Defiant One," Biography, Arts and Entertainment, 1997.

The Rosie O'Donnell Show, syndicated, 1997.

Abigail Peabody-Jackson, "Living the Rest of My Life," Touched by an Angel, CBS, 2000.

Justice Gretchen Parkhurst, "Final Appeal," The Outer Limits, Showtime and syndicated, 2000.

Tavis Smiley, PBS, 2005.

Television Appearances; Specials:

Dr. Julia Rogers, Wednesday Night Out, NBC, 1972.

Marlo Thomas and Friends in Free to Be … You and Me, 1974.

The American Film Institute Salute to James Cagney, CBS, 1974.

Cohost, CBS: On the Air, 1978.

The Television Annual: 1978/1979 (documentary), ABC, 1979.

Host, The Body Human: Becoming a Woman, CBS, 1981.

Night of 100 Stars, ABC, 1982.

The American Film Institute Salute to Lillian Gish, CBS, 1984.

The Screen Actors Guild 50th Anniversary Celebration, 1984.

An All-Star Celebration Honoring Martin Luther King, Jr., NBC, 1986.

Liberty Weekend, ABC, 1986.

Sojourner Truth, The Blessings of Liberty, ABC, 1987.

We the People 200: The Constitutional Gala, CBS, 1987.

Neighbors, Arts and Entertainment, 1987.

The Kennedy Center Honors: A Celebration of the Performing Arts, CBS, 1988.

Host, Without Borders, TBS, 1989.

Host, Visions of Freedom: A Time Television Special, syndicated, 1990.

Celebrate the Soul of American Music, syndicated, 1991.

Clippers, CBS, 1991.

Voice of Ida Wells Barnett, A Century of Women (also known as A Family of Women), TBS, 1994.

Celebrate the Dream: 50 Years of Ebony, ABC, 1996.

Interviewee, Sidney Poitier: The Defiant One (documentary), Arts and Entertainment, 1997.

CBS: The First 50 Years, CBS, 1998.

Narrator, Intimate Portrait: Harriet Tubman, Lifetime, 2000.

Inside TV Land: African Americans in Television (documentary), TV Land, 2002.

A Capitol Fourth, PBS, 2004.

Television Appearances; Awards Presentations:

Presenter, The 46th Annual Academy Awards, NBC, 1974.

Presenter, The 49th Annual Academy Awards, ABC, 1977.

Presenter, The 50th Annual Academy Awards, ABC, 1978.

The 30th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards, CBS, 1978.

Presenter, The 34th Annual Tony Awards, CBS, 1980.

The 19th Annual NAACP Image Awards, 1987.

The 20th Annual NAACP Image Awards, 1988.

Presenter, The 44th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards, 1992.

Presenter, The 18th Annual CableACE Awards, 1996.

Presenter, 3rd Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards, NBC, 1997.

The 51st Annual Primetime Emmy Awards, Fox, 1999.

10th Annual Trumpet Awards, TBS, 2002.

2005 Black Movie Awards, TNT, 2005.

RECORDINGS

Videos:

'Fried Green Tomatoes': The Moments of Discovery, Universal Studios Home Video, 1998.

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"Tyson, Cicely 1933–." Contemporary Theatre, Film and Television. . Encyclopedia.com. 24 Jun. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Tyson, Cicely 1933–." Contemporary Theatre, Film and Television. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 24, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/tyson-cicely-1933-0

"Tyson, Cicely 1933–." Contemporary Theatre, Film and Television. . Retrieved June 24, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/tyson-cicely-1933-0