Shortly after The Trip to Bountiful wrapped its celebrated Broadway run last October, cast members Cicely Tyson and Vanessa Williams, director Michael Wilson and producer Hallie Foote (daughter of Bountiful’s scribe Horton Foote) took a trip of their own — to Atlanta to begin work on Lifetime’s film adaptation of the production.
Set during the final years of the Jim Crow South, Bountiful chronicles spirited elderly widow Carrie Watts’ (Tyson) mission to escape the stifling Houston apartment of her overprotective son Ludie (Blair Underwood) and his prickly wife Jessie Mae (Williams) and make a final visit to Bountiful, her beloved hometown. Trailed by her family and befriended by a young Army bride (Keke Palmer) and the sympathetic local sheriff (Clancy Brown), Carrie embarks on a life-affirming journey that is by turns heart-rending and humorous.
Williams says that while she wishes more of the 122-minute play could have been woven into the 88-minute film, preparing for the stage production allowed her to fully inhabit her character in each. “The wonderful thing about theater is that you have a long time to rehearse and the rehearsal process and especially the rehearsal space,” she says. “It’s a very sacred space. You talk about experiences that you lend to the character. You talk about your characters and what their backstory was like. That’s the luxury of doing theater — you get that exploratory time.”
Williams says the stage cast consulted an encyclopedia to school themselves about 1953 Houston, and frequently turned to Hallie Foote for insight into the complex interpersonal dynamics her dad created.
“What I tapped into for my character was the difference between Mother Watts, who couldn’t wait to go back to Bountiful because her past was her glory and what she longed for, and Jessie Mae, who didn’t want to go back to her past and loved the hustle and bustle of Houston,” says Williams. “She’s lived 15 years with her mother-in-law in the next room, so she’s not been able to have a fruitful marriage or bear kids without having this third person in their marriage. And they’re both fighting for the love of the same man, whom they love equally but differently. That’s the struggle.”
While Wilson praised Williams’ ability to not court audience sympathy in playing the frustrated and sometimes cruel Jessie Mae, the actress admits that directing vitriol toward the venerable Tyson (who won Tony and Drama Desk awards for her stage performance) took some getting used to.
“Not only did I have to secure myself with being disrespectful to someone that I totally respect, but also to do that in front of an audience where you can hear the gasps and the snickers and the sneers and see the eyeballs rolling,” Williams muses. “You have to be willing as an actor to be not liked. It’s about making the character real — and when people are convinced, that’s when you know you’ve done your job.”
Lifetime also announced that, in celebration of Black History Month, First Lady Michelle Obama will deliver remarks at a screening of The Trip to Bountiful to be held in The Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House grounds Monday, Feb. 24 at 4pm ET. Wilson, Tyson, Williams, Underwood and Palmer will attend the event, which will stream live at http://www.whitehouse.gov//live.
The Trip to Bountiful premieres Saturday, March 8 at 8/7CT on Lifetime
Photo credits: Annette Brown/Lifetime