Cicely Tyson and James Earl Jones are laughing so hard they can barely breathe. They’re reminiscing about the last time they shared a Broadway stage: A Hand Is on the Gate, Roscoe Lee Browne’s 1966 staging of poetry and songs by African-American writers. “There was a poem that James and Roscoe did together,” Tyson recalls. “Roscoe did it in elegant, refined French, and then James did it in English with this horrible Southern accent. It was an absolute scream! Do you remember?” Shuffling a deck of cards, Jones nods and wipes away tears.
Almost 50 years later, the old friends are rehearsing for a Broadway revival of D.L. Coburn’s The Gin Game. Tyson, 90, and Jones, 84, star as nursing home residents who swap stories over rounds of gin rummy that become increasingly contentious. Directed by Leonard Foglia, the Pulitzer Prize-winning play opens October 14 for a limited run at the Golden Theatre, where Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn headlined its 1977 Broadway premiere.
Tyson and Jones first worked together in the early ’60s when they starred in the Off-Broadway premieres of Moon on a Rainbow Shawl and The Blacks. They later appeared together in several films, including The River Niger and Heat Wave. “Thinking back on what we’ve done together, each time has been a really special experience,” Tyson says. “I’ve always been amused by the way he creates his characters. He’s so absolutely free, and that’s really admirable in an actor. He lets everything loose.”
“I can always look forward to something different from her,” Jones responds. “No time was she the same type of character — except for little, pretty women.”
Despite their history and mutual respect, they aren’t always on the same page. Asked what drew them to The Gin Game, Tyson talks about the appeal of doing a two-hander with Jones. As for him? “It’s work,” he says. Asked if they’ve always gotten along, Tyson gushes that it’s “very difficult not to get along with James Earl Jones.” Him? “You have to get along,” he says. “It’s part of the job.”
Noting that Tandy and Cronyn were married when they did The Gin Game, Jones does feel that a close personal relationship benefits the theatrical tête-à-tête. “I never feel afraid with Cicely,” he says. “This can be fearsome sometimes, especially if a role is difficult.”
Tyson, on the other hand, has a healthy fear of her costar. “When I heard James Earl Jones was doing this play, I was intrigued and terrified,” she says. “I thought, Jesus, he’s going to bury me, because I know how overwhelming he can be. But this is a role where I can shrivel, so I’ll let him be as big as he wants.”
Tyson earned a Tony Award for the 2013 revival of The Trip to Bountiful, after which she reprised her performance in Los Angeles and Boston. Jones, a two-time Tony winner for The Great White Hope and Fences, appeared on Broadway just last season in You Can’t Take It With You. Although neither actor anticipated returning to the stage quite so quickly, they both knew they’d be back. “I was ready to take a vacation from that show, but I wasn’t ready to take a vacation from working,” Jones says. “This is how I make my living.” Do they consider themselves workaholics? Jones considers the question carefully. “I suppose I am,” he says. “Why else am I here? Because I like it, and I’m addicted to the thrill I get from exploring a story.”
“I just consider myself fortunate,” Tyson says. “I’m very blessed that I’ve been given this gift. When I read a script, either my skin tingles or my stomach churns. When my skin tingles, I know it’s something I have to do. That part came to me for a reason, it’s mine, so it never occurs to me not to do it.”
If there’s anything these two Emmy-winning legends agree on, it’s that retirement is not an option. They shudder at the suggestion of resting on their laurels. “It won’t let you retire,” Jones says. “It — your energy, your life. Before we die, there’s work to be done. I don’t look at death with dread anymore. It’s going to happen to all of us, and that’s comforting.”
“Nope,” says Tyson, defiantly shaking her head, before Jones adds, “Okay, not her.”
But surely the demands of Broadway get harder as they grow older, right? “Not once I commit myself,” Tyson insists. “I never for one moment thought of Trip as being difficult. I was so enmeshed with the role, I didn’t feel the slightest bit of anxiety. I enjoyed it so much, and having an audience feel the same way makes it that much more rewarding.”
“For me, hearing gets harder,” admits Jones, tapping his ear. “Other than that, no.” He fumbles with his deck of cards. “These old thumbs don’t work so well either, but I’ll keep practicing.”
Playbill, October 2015 issue.