Novella Nelson, 78, Dies; Brought Authority to Myriad Roles
By RICHARD SANDOMIR
SEPT. 7, 2017
Novella Nelson as Harriet Tubman on the television series “You Are There” in the early 1970s. CBS
Novella Nelson, a powerful and versatile actress whose long career included prominent roles in the hit Broadway musical “Purlie” in 1970 and the film “Antwone Fisher” more than 30 years later, died on Aug. 31 in Brooklyn. She was 78.
Her daughter, Alesa Blanchard Nelson, said the cause was cancer.
Over a half-century, Ms. Nelson performed in classical and contemporary works in New York and at regional theaters around the country. She was a stage director, a consultant to the impresario Joseph Papp at the Public Theater and a cabaret singer before she began to appear on television and in movies.
But her face — and the authority that she brought to her myriad roles — was usually more familiar than her name.
“Her face,” the New York Times drama critic Walter Kerr once wrote, “is not so much a countenance as a splendor of lines.”
That much is clear in a scene in “Antwone Fisher” (2002), in which Fisher (Derek Luke), a sailor with a troubled past, returns as an adult to confront Ms. Nelson’s character, his abusive foster mother, over her despicable treatment of him as a child. Ms. Nelson’s nimble face registers happiness at seeing him, which quickly turns to confusion, irritation and fury as he shows that he is no longer a victim.
For all her achievements, Ms. Nelson never became famous. But, her daughter said, she was comfortable with her relative anonymity.
“I can’t pin me down, and that doesn’t worry me,” she told The Washington Post soon after the release of Paul Mazursky’s “An Unmarried Woman” (1978), in which she had one of her earliest movie roles. “Everyone sees different parts of me. But like the character in the movie, I am a free spirit. She has a grip on things and so do I.”
Novella Nelson singing at a nightclub in 1968.
She added, “Ask me in another five months who I am.”
Ms. Nelson’s stage work suggested a desire never to be typecast. She played Vanity, one of seven “ungrateful abstractions,” including Intellect and Sensuality, in “Horseman, Pass By,” a musical based on William Butler Yeats’s poetry; Lena in the South African playwright Athol Fugard’s “Boesman and Lena,” about a couple during the apartheid era; Clytemnestra, the queen of Greek legend, in Sophocles’ “Electra,” and Aunt Ester, an ancient mystic, in “Gem of the Ocean,” the first in August Wilson’s 10-play cycle set in Pittsburgh that dramatizes the African-American experience in the 20th century.
In her review of the Hartford Stage production of “Gem of the Ocean” in 2011, Sylviane Gold wrote in The Times that Ms. Nelson played Ester “with a magnificent combination of regal dignity and maternal tenderness.”
Novella Christine Nelson was born in Brooklyn on Dec. 17, 1938. Her father, James, was a taxi driver and a pastor. Her mother, the former Evelyn Hines, was an executive secretary at Women’s Wear Daily.
By her sophomore year at Brooklyn College, Ms. Nelson aspired to be a chemist and was planning to major in biochemistry. “She was a nerd,” her daughter said.
But she took a theater course, which transformed her; after she played Berenice, the housekeeper, in Carson McCullers’s “The Member of the Wedding,” she was overcome with excitement.
“It was a feeling I never had before, and its only happened three or four other times since,” she told The Hartford Courant in 2011. “When I came off the stage, someone had to hold me for a second because it was so extraordinary.”
Her trajectory had been permanently altered. She went on to play Madame Tango, the matron of a bordello, in an Off Broadway production of the Truman Capote-Harold Arlen musical “House of Flowers,” and was Pearl Bailey’s understudy in the lead role of “Hello, Dolly!” on Broadway before she was cast in “Purlie,” the musical version of Ossie Davis’s play “Purlie Victorious.”
Ms. Nelson returned to Broadway in “Caesar and Cleopatra” (with Rex Harrison and Elizabeth Ashley) in 1977 and in “The Little Foxes” (with Elizabeth Taylor) in 1981. She was also in the National Actors Theater production of “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui” (with Al Pacino) in 2002. And on television, among her many roles, she played Harriet Tubman in an early 1970s episode of “You Are There,” the CBS News historical series.
She began to sing partly to earn money between acting jobs, after the manager of a nightclub in Manhattan overheard her say that she could perform better than the singer onstage.
“If you think you can do better, get up there and sing,” she recalled the manager telling her. “And because I sang all my life in church, I did, and he hired me.”
She had an emotional and provocative style of singing blues, gospel and pop, and was equally at ease with the songs of Bessie Smith and Jacques Brel.
Interviewed by The Times between sets at the Village Vanguard in 1968, she said: “I felt I could express my commitment to my blackness, to my recognition of who I am, much better as a singer than an actress. But I don’t think of myself as a rebel. I preach love — a coming together.”
She recorded only one album, called simply “Novella Nelson” and released in 1970, and eventually cut back on her singing to focus on her acting.
Her daughter is her only survivor. Ms. Nelson’s marriage to George Blanchard ended in divorce.
Ms. Nelson poked fun at her public renown in a 2010 episode of the sitcom “30 Rock,” in which she played herself. In the episode she was cast to play the mother of Tracy Jordan, Tracy Morgan’s character, on a Mother’s Day show, because his real mother could not be found.
“Maybe you wanted someone more high-profile, but I am what you’ve got,” she told him. “So, Tracy, you’d better watch yourself or you may wind up with no mother at all.”
“Fine,” he replied. “I’d rather be up on that stage all alone than to be with someone whose résumé has ‘black judge’ on it nine times.”