NEW YORK (AP) — James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson are happy that theatergoers are excited to see them onstage together again, but please, please, hold your applause when they first appear.
“It can be very distracting,” says Tyson. Jones, seated beside her, agrees: “I wish there was a way for actors to kill it.”
Truth be told, it may be hard for folks at the Golden Theatre to sit on their hands when these two veterans first show up in D.L. Coburn’s “The Gin Game” starting this month.
Both have Tony Awards and Emmys. Both are beloved for their activism and the high quality of their work. They’re also apparently immune to the ravages of age — she’s 90, he’s 84. Even so, they’d rather have silence when the play begins.
“I think the ideal is you walk onstage and they’re so rapt by what’s happening to you that they don’t think of you as an actor. They get lost themselves. That’s home free, right there,” Jones said. “That’s what we all want. Forget the entrance applause, please.”
Jones and Tyson can chart each other’s careers by their projects together. They last shared a Broadway stage in 1966 when they appeared in the poetry-filled “A Hand Is on the Gate.” The time before that was the short-lived urban drama “The Cool World” in 1960.
They also starred in the long-running off-Broadway production of Jean Genet’s “The Blacks.” On TV, they were together in 1990’s “Heat Wave,” about the 1965 riots in Los Angeles.
On film, they’ve starred opposite each other in the 1976 film “The River Niger” about life in the ghetto and “The Comedians” with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, set in Haiti.
Jones regrets never winning the part of her sharecropping husband in “Sounder,” a film which earned Tyson an Oscar nomination. He had just won the Tony for “The Great White Hope” but it wasn’t meant to be. “It would have been fun. It would have been nice,” he said.
In the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Gin Game,” an elderly man and woman play repeated games of gin in their retirement home, sharing stories and exploring their past. Tyson couldn’t resist another chance to work with Jones.
“It’s an incredible reunion, I think. He is so prolific and intense about his work. And you can see it and feel it,” she said during a joint interview. “It’s like a wheel that’s turning.”
There’s one problem with this particular reunion: Jones repeatedly makes Tyson burst into laughter. He is, she said, “on a mission to break me up.”
“It is extremely difficult in some instances to contain myself and to remain true to the character that I’m trying to play,” she said. During rehearsals, she pleaded with the cast to let her get her giggles out. “I really can’t allow for it to happen in the theater.”
Others who have tackled “The Gin Game” include Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy in 1977 and Charles Durning and Julie Harris in 1997. Tyson saw it onstage with Cronyn and Tandy, calling it a “unique experience,” but warns that the work is no cute little valentine.
“It really is one of the most difficult things I’ve ever tackled. Most people think that it’s about a card game, about two elders sitting down playing cards,” she said. “It has nothing to do with that. It’s a fraud. It is really the most complicated role that I have ever had to deal with.”
Jones, who arrived at rehearsals having already memorized the play, fills notebooks with comments from the creative team. He and Tyson are both exploring the script with the energy of two college seniors during finals week.
Tyson admits to not sleeping the night before. Going over the script, she suddenly realized a key thing about her character. “I realized something that is so important and such an integral part of her personality. It just hit me. I thought, ‘God, I got something.'”
Jones nods: “Sometimes, late at night, as she said, you’re just reading through and you go, ‘Wow.’ The clarity of a line comes to you in a way you never thought of before.”
Both said that’s why they keep coming back to the theater.
“That’s the fascination for me about the stage: Every single moment can be a revelation. And that’s exciting, I think,” Tyson said. Jones knows what she means: “It never stops. Once we open this play, we’ll still be discovering stuff about it.”