R.I.P. Mary Alice, from The Matrix Revolutions and A Different World

Mary Alice, posing after her Emmy win in 1993

Mary Alice, posing after her Emmy win in 1993
Photo: Vinnie Zuffante/Michael Ochs Archives (Getty Images)

Mary Alice has died. A Tony and Emmy-winning actor, Alice is probably best known to younger audiences for her role in the Matrix trilogy, taking over the part of the Oracle in The Matrix Revolutions after the death of original actor Gloria Foster in 2001. A veteran of the stage, Alice originated the role of Rose in August Wilson’s Fencesscoring the Tony for Best Featured Actress for the show’s Broadway debut in 1987. Per The Hollywood ReporterAlice was 85 (although there’s some confusion online about what year she was born); the NYPD stated today that she died on Wednesday in her New York City home.

Mary Alice wins 1987 Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play

Born in Mississippi as Mary Alice Smith, Alice got her start as a teacher before branching out into community theater, spending the next 40-plus years of her life on the stage. A stage actor first and foremost (she was inducted into the American Theater Hall Of Fame in 2000)Alice eventually broke into TV as well; her most regular small-screen gig was as dorm director Lettie on the first two seasons of ’80s sitcom A Different World. A few years later, her recurring role as Marguerite Peck in NBC period drama I’ll Fly Away scored her two Emmy nominations, and one win, for Best Supporting Actress In A Drama Series.

Meanwhile, in film, Alice acquired a resumé filled with small but prominent roles; she notably co-starred in the 1976 musical drama Sparkleplaying the mother of rising musicians Irene Cara, Lonette McKee, and Dwan Smith. Other credits include Penny Marshall’s AwakeningsBrian De Palma’s infamous adaptation of The Bonfire Of The Vanitiesand Spike Lee’s Malcolm X. And, of course, The Matrix Revolutionswhere Alice resisted the urge to perform an impression of Foster’s Oracle, instead giving the character her own particular spin and ambiguous desires in her final appearances.

The Matrix Revolutions – The Oracle

As the 2000s progressed, Alice stepped back from working; she talked about the decision with Wilson Morales in a 2002 interview with blackfilm.comdone while she was promoting her part in John Sayles’ Sunshine State. In the interview (which she gave from Australia, where she was filming on Revolutions), Alice talks about Hollywood’s endless tendency to relegate Black women to the roles of “wise and nurturing” mother figures, named her favorite of her own parts (a PBS adaptation of Philip Hayes Dean’s The Sty Of The Blind Pig in 1974)and gave some advice to young up-and-comers:

When you know how to do something well, nobody can take that away from you. They may not give you a job, but they cannot take away from you what you can do. And that is something that can see you through the bad times as well as the good times and keep you going because this is a business that is full of discouragement. So you need something within you that no one else can give you and no one else can take away from you to keep you going.

Alice retired from acting in 2005.

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