Debbie Allen on How Cicely Tyson Inspired Black Women to Find Their Cultural Identity (Exclusive)
By Paige Gawley
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Debbie Allen is praising the late Cicely Tyson. ET's Kevin Frazier speaks to Allen on Friday's episode of Entertainment Tonight, one day after the death of her longtime friend. During the chat, the 71-year-old actress and dancer reflects on the impact Tyson had on her and other Black women.
For Allen, Tyson's first "big impact" on her happened in the 1960s, when the late actress came on television with her natural hair.
"This was a time where we were... trying to find our cultural identity as women. She helped us know the power of our beauty in our Blackness and that was an impression that stayed with me as a student at Howard University," Allen says. "... Cicely was so powerful."
The pair met when they were both working in the entertainment industry in New York, and Allen is still in awe of Tyson to this day.
"How do you explain the power of the sun? How do you explain the cresting wind across your face? You experience it," she says. "She was who she was and she was very real. It's not something that you can manufacture. You are either that or you're not. She was the queen. She was a goddess. [She had] risen to that place, what we call the GOAT, the greatest of all time, and you can't teach that."
The Academy also felt Tyson's greatness, as she was nominated for the 1973 Best Actress Oscar for her work in Sounder. Diana Ross was nominated the same year for Lady Sings the Blues, though the award ultimately went to Liza Minnelli for Cabaret.
"I think it resonated because we had waited so long. Hattie McDaniel won [in 1940]. It was 50 years later that Whoopi Goldberg won [for Ghost]. That year we had Diana Ross and Cicely Tyson both nominated for an Academy Award," Allen says. "That was big. That was huge for all of us... As an artist it said, 'Oh yeah, we can go all the way. The road is opening up.'"
Allen's "biggest and most joyful memory" of Tyson has nothing to do with her career, but rather from the inauguration of President Barack Obama.
"We were all like penguins in the North Pole huddling to get warm. There she was braving the cold with me, and Forest Whitaker, my husband [Norm Nixon], and Kym Whitley," Allen recalls. "She wouldn't let anyone take her picture... She was not being a diva, it was because she was in the moment, and she felt herself in the earth, and part of the landscape of this greater picture that was being painted for the world. That's who she is."
Allen says she'll remember her late friend as a "very selfless person," a trait, she thinks, that will be the basis of Tyson's legacy.
"Cicely's legacy was that she was one of the greatest artists of our time, who used the power of her platform to move the thermometer of justice and social change," Allen says.
Tune in to Friday's episode of Entertainment Tonight to see more of Allen's interview.