One day, however, she had seen her mother in a line of black women waiting to be hired as maids. White people in cars drove slowly past, looking them over. America’s original sin of slavery seemed as sharp as ever. Even decades later racism still ran deep in the film and TV industries, despite the progress on the surface.
In 1977 she appeared as the hero’s mother in “Roots”, a TV series that told the story of an African boy, Kunta Kinte, sold into slavery in the South. It made a huge splash for a time. But there were still few parts for black actors unless these were “written black”, shoehorned into some white cliché of what her people were.
And they were still not considered automatically as leads, capable of carrying a film, or as actors of classic parts. She would have loved, herself, to play Ophelia. The role seemed closed to her. But where did anyone say Ophelia was white?
In 2013, fulfilling a long-standing dream, she played an originally white role, Mrs Carrie Watts, in “The Trip to Bountiful” on Broadway. It won her a Tony award. The story was of an old woman who insisted on seeing her childhood home before she died.
As usual she steeped herself in the character, even going to “Mrs Carrie’s” part of Texas to scratch up the earth and smell it. Being ancient herself now, it was not hard to get the moves right.
And in any case, for all her care with nuances, her characters had one trait they shared. Whatever their age, they stood tall, squared their shoulders, pressed onward. They kept their chins high.