Phyllis Yvonne Stickney has enjoyed a busy career in film, television, and stage. The still strikingly beautiful, Afro-centric performer, has successfully juggled many roles throughout her 40-year illustrious career—actress, comedienne, producer, director, poet, author, playwright, griot, motivational speaker—Phyllis seemingly never puts the brakes on creativity and is clearly, one who has always followed her heart’s passions.

Phyllis will forever be remembered as Cora, the destitute serial babymaker in the hit miniseries, The Women of Brewster Place. She also appeared in such memorable classic films as New Jack CityJungle Fever, Inkwell, Malcolm XWhat’s Love Got to Do with It, Die Hard with a Vengeance, and How Stella Got Her Groove Back.

On the small screen, Phyllis co-starred with Sheryl Lee Ralph on the sitcom, New Attitude. She has also made numerous episodic guest appearances on such popular TV shows as The Miss Pat Show, Shameless and on one of our most beloved sitcoms, A Different World.

A younger Phyllis

As a theatrical performer, Phyllis gained recognition for her work with Roger Furman, a playwright and director who founded the New Heritage Repertory Theatre (now the Heritage Theatre Group) in 1964 to provide training, exposure, and experience to artists of color. Phyllis gained recognition for her creative work with Furman. In 1983, she won the highly prestigious Audience Development Committee Recognition Award (AUDELCO), which rewards excellence in Black theater and performing arts for her performance in Furman’s adaptation of Molière’s Tartuffe, called Monsieur Baptistethe Con Man. As of late, the Little Rock, Arkansas native, performed brilliantly, and to rave reviews, in the comedic play Clyde’s, which is the most produced play in America.

The lady has also brought her decades-long, A-game funny, as a comedienne. In 1986, Phyllis won first place at Amateur Night at the famed New York City’s Apollo Theatre. Later, she became the first female host for Showtime at the Apollo. The win led to countless gigs at various comedy clubs throughout the country, as a warm-up announcer, and an opening act for such luminaries as Bill Cosby and Roberta Flack.

The ‘African Center Scholar’ who was inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame was given quite a prestigious honor. Essence Magazine named Phyllis as “One of the 200 African American Women Who Have Changed the World.” The ‘Torchbearer in Black Theater’ and staunch supporter of the Black arts, also founded Advocates 4 Diversity in the Arts, an advocacy organization created to assist various artists in identifying and securing resources and support for their artistic projects.

Phyllis and Spike Lee (School Daze)

Phyllis Yvonne Stickney is the true definition of a renaissance woman—risk-taking, inspirational, a visionary, creative, multi-talented, and successful. The faith-walker has certainly proven herself to be a real virtuoso of the arts. Phyllis is now working on a one-woman production entitled, P.S. I’m Still Standing, a title that is so befitting of this living legend.

50BOLD: So, you are a native of Little Rock, Arkansas, I have to make it down there.

Phyllis: It’s a beautiful state with plenty of natural hot springs, and it’s affordable! It was more affordable when I was trying to encourage people who look like me to invest. There are still some very affordable properties here. It’s a very interesting place.

50BOLD: We love poetry here at 50BOLD. Is it true you’ve been writing poetry since the age of 10?

Phyllis:  I would say, I was at least a preteen. The first poem that I wrote, I cannot even repeat the title. I was angry at the moment. And it went something like ‘Bleak my family, Bleak my family.’ I was terrible!  Poetry was, I think, how I came to develop a love of language and the music of language. I think it’s what lends itself to my ability to hear music in dialects, and to embody the sound, and music of certain regions, and culture. So, my mother and father had a book of poetry. The 100 Best Love Poems of All Time by one hundred of the world’s greatest poets. And I remember my favorite poet was a man named Kipling and Edgar Guest was another. I memorized poems at that time. There were things that I wanted to say to someone, or a message I wanted to convey, and didn’t quite have the words. But there was always a poem that I could remember and recite.

And then I began to write my own poems. I wrote a book called Loud Thoughts for Quiet Moments. It was a collection of personal essays, recollections, and poetry.

I began to work on a piece that was a homage to Ntozake Shange and her For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf. What she wrote was a homage to Black women and women of color. It is a powerful piece and for the first time in American Theater, something called a choreopoem was born. A choreopoem did not exist before the work of Ntozake Shange. I’d like to collaborate with some other artist like she did in the creation of the original work. When I perform the piece in my one woman show, I say that it’s not meant to try and recreate Ntozake’s characters or to retell her story. What I seek to do with the piece is to respect the rhythm of the work.

I actually got to meet Ntozake, a friend made it possible for me to meet her after one of her long hospital stays. I was just in awe of her.

50BOLD: Yes, we interviewed Ntozake before she passed.

Phyllis:  So yes, poetry is how I get off my voice sometimes. Oftentimes, I tell it to the page.

50BOLD: And you do it so very well!

Phyllis:  Thank you.

50BOLD:  Tell me something, what makes Phyllis Yvonne Stickney laugh out loud?

Phyllis: I love Katt Williams. He makes me laugh out loud. Dave Chappelle makes me laugh out loud. I could watch Richard Pryor, Lily Tomlin, George Carlin, and laugh and laugh. I think sometimes the irony in life is funny and how things can get juxtaposed. I might find humor in something that is totally off, you know. I don’t know…. I have such a mature palette you know. It varies. I’m not really into slapstick. I don’t like fart jokes. Human excrement jokes don’t move me. I’m not into the dozens. I’m not going to talk about your mama. I’ve done comedy in England. I’ve done comedy most recently in Belize. I use the same principles in my comedy which is just observing life. I think the way we move and interact with one another, culturally, can be interesting.

Phyllis (in blue) and her Brewster Place co-stars

50BOLD: You can certainly take any situation and find humor in it, but the way in which it is expressed, takes it to another level. On the flip side, what makes you shed a tear?

Phyllis:  I feel what’s happening to humanity now. Observing the way that our young girls dress.

50BOLD: Oh God, don’t get me started!

Phyllis:  It brings me to tears to see these babies out in public with their butt cheeks hanging out and breasts so exposed, you know. It all brings sadness to me because I know they do not understand that they are jewels, treasures. Stores are selling hoe-gear in small, medium, large, and extra-large. Hoe-gear! These are not clothes. So, this brings me to tears.

When I walk through an airport and see a mother with an infant in a stroller and her toddler still in pampers being dragged along. She is yanking the child along so quickly; the baby can barely keep up. Then seeing the mother cursing, using the MF word toward her toddler, and then screaming…’You’ve got two legs, use them!’ I think to myself, what is this child going to grow up to be?

How do you think this baby is going to grow up? What kind of young man or woman is this child going to be, when you’ve been calling them an MF all their life? And you wonder why, when this baby grows up, they want to bust you upside your head!

50BOLD: But this is what sets you apart from so many other comics, you provide messages in your comedy. It is apparent that your messages are clear and carefully thought out. Kudos to you for being a woke and conscious beautiful Black woman!

Phyllis:  I live in Harlem in the real world. Yes, I also worked in Harlem. And I would take buses sometimes. I didn’t like going underground. Long story short, I would listen to kids sitting on the bus. They would use such foul language! I would have to take a mini moment…. On one occasion, I said to one of them, ‘Oh my God! Oh my goodness! I can’t believe all that is coming out of your pretty face!’ Now, the kids didn’t expect my comment, and didn’t know what to say in return. One kid with some home training responded with, ‘Now, see that lady, I told you don’t be talking like that! Excuse me mam!’  Afterward, they began to act like they had a little bit of sense, even if for a short time, while I was on that bus. My comments let the kids know, they were being watched. I saw them. I cared.

50BOLD:  So many of our kids are just lost.

Phyllis: And that’s a tear shedding moment for me. Right now, there’s a lump in my throat because these kids just don’t get it.

50BOLD: It is all so sad, this generation seems lost. 

Phyllis: I think about what wasn’t done for a child. Did you pull a child aside and leave them with something they can consume and that will help them grow? What are we doing? We no longer think about what happened to Bebe’s kids. These are Pookie and dem’s kids!

50BOLD: Let’s talk about gratitude, as 50-plus people, should we walk around with our heads to the sky? Are you a grateful person? Let me say this…. I’m what you’d call a grateful person. I was never into tattoos, but something came over me about ten years ago. I ended up at a tattoo parlor and had the word ‘Grateful,’ along with a crucifix, tattooed across my chest. I feel so blessed because of my attitude of gratitude. I’m in my 60s and still have all my siblings and parents. We are all doing well and in positions to help others…my life is full….

Phyllis: WOW, that is all so beautiful!! And I too, am SO grateful, I don’t even know how to complain! I am grateful to the Most High! I’m grateful to the ancestors. I am grateful to a mother and father, who instilled so much in me. My parents’ teachings keeps me grounded to this very day, keeps me humble, keeps me clear, because I’m representing them. I carry their name. I carry their legacy. I want to leave a legacy, you know. I want people to look back and talk about the things I left as an artist, poet, public speaker. A legacy is so important. How I walk in this life is always important which is why I live in Harlem and not Hollywood. I want little brown and Black girls to see me come out of their apartment building and know, that good things are possible for them.

There’s actually a woman in my life today who met me when she was 13 years old. I spoke life into her at that time. And this is a full-circle moment story. I met the now woman, again, but through her daughter! The woman told her daughter about her encounter with me years ago at the Apollo and how, I would always give her advice. The woman remembered the pearls of wisdom that I imparted to her back when she was a young girl. And now, she is a woman of age 50. So, when the woman saw me again, she could barely contain herself. She said, that I was the same. I had the same spirit. The same love. It comforted this mother to know, that I was showing her daughter love, like I showed her love, so many years ago.

I am grateful for this interview! I am also so very grateful that I got to direct the Negro Ensemble Company’s Zooman and the Sign, a play that was written by Charles Fuller, who I met on the first day I arrived in New York, many, many, years ago. The production was held last month at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Center.

Philadelphia was my stepping stone into New York city. So, it is a personal triumph for me to go back to Philly as a director.

I am grateful for my organization, my foundation, The Faith Walk Family Foundation. I will be working on developing affordable yoga studios and wellness centers in what some would call underserved communities in Arkansas.

(l-r) Phyllis and her New Attitude co-stars Morris Day and Sheryl Lee Ralph

50BOLD: Who are some of the folks who have made a positive impact in your life?

Phyllis:  Dick Gregory! He made me laugh. He was SO profound, he always provided me with a history lesson. I made sure I was in his presence whenever I could be. I feel compelled to give him respect and especially in this interview. There were two people who have positively touched my life, Dick Gregory and Roberta Flack. Robert Flack saw my brilliance when she came to see me at Smalls Paradise in Harlem. And Dick Gregory also came to see me at the venue and of course, he had no idea how much I admired him.

And so, one particular year, I was the first female to ever single-handedly host the Essence Music Festival’s main stage at the Superdome where there were over 75,000 people. I was literally, visibly, vibrating, and shaking, because the energy there was so high. I was in the VIP section of the Superdome, the area that is closed off for the talent. I remember watching Mary J Blige perform on the big screen. And I remember saying, ‘Oh God, we need to pray for her!’ Just as I came out of that thought, I looked up and there was Dick Gregory. And he asked me, ‘How do you know, what you know?’ I knew this was not just a frivolous question. I thought about the question, asked my higher self, then gave him this answer… ‘The Most High and the ancestors.’ What he said to me was, ‘You know you’re a messenger. You were sent here to lead the people.’

50BOLD:  Amen. Amen!

Phyllis: I just sat there, feeling humbled and listening to what Dick Gregory was saying. And then he asked me, ‘What are you doing when you leave here?’ And I said, ‘Well, based on what you just told me, where do I need to be?’ And he told me to meet him in Washington DC at Gallaudet University. And I did. Dick Gregory became my official comedy father. What he shared with me…. There’s a book called The Last Mile, Conversations with Dick Gregory by Shelia P. Moses. If you look on page 83 when Dick Gregory was asked which female comediennes he liked, well, I cried, when I read his response. You know who he said, right?

50BOLD:  Well, alright! What an honor!

Phyllis:  Dick Gregory revealed who he really dug was ME! He went on to describe me using the most beautiful words and discussed what my blessings were. So, when Dick received his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, I flew in to attend the ceremony. Well, I was asked to be on the stage. I told Dick that the people in charge would not give me the mic. Dick called someone over, I can’t remember who.… He told them, ‘You make sure Phyllis gets on that stage! You make sure she gets that mic tonight!’ And that’s the way it was with Dick Gregory and I. I went to his ceremony and his funeral; I was there. I made sure that every chance I’d see him, I was in his presence.

50BOLD: Were there other creatives who left an indelible impression on you, professionally?

Maya Angelou! What blows my mind in all honesty, Russell Wilson, is that major celebrities know who I am. This always blows my mind. I’m like…’How do they actually know me?’ I mean like by the time we worked on ‘The Women of Brewster Place,’ Maya knew who I was from my theatrical work. Avery Brooks, Rosalind Cash, Pauletta Washington (Denzel’s wife), LaTonya Williams, Giancarlo Esposito, Delroy Lindo, and Ruben Santiago-Hudson, I know all of them from the theater; these are people I look up to.

I attended the National Black Theater Festival in Winston-Salem, NC, and in its first year, Oprah and Denzel were the hosts. Dr. Maya Angelou attended the festival. And we’re both from Arkansas. She was from Stamps, Arkansas and I was born in Little Rock. Long story short, she walked up to me, this blew my mind. Dr. Angelou said, ‘You are a masterpiece in the making,’ with that commanding voice of hers. I just stood dumbfounded. I didn’t know what to say or how to respond to Dr. Angelou. I think I got out a meager ‘Thank you Mam.’ She became Ma Maya to me. I respectfully called her Ma Maya because she and the late Ossie Davis were true and devoted patrons of the theater.

Roger Furman’s muse was Diana Sands and I had a moment with him. When we were at rehearsals for a play, he burst into tears. I asked why he was crying, and he responded with, ‘You remind me of Diana!’ Roger Furman was one of the co-authors of The Black Book. Roger ushered me into theater, and through the theatrical community. Hollywood didn’t want to deal with me, so my commitment to the theatrical community and my allegiance to them remains. The theatrical community took care of me when Hollywood wouldn’t.

50BOLD:  You are such a powerful actress. Why aren’t the Oprah’s and Tyler Perry’s of the world knocking down your door?

Phyllis:  You can’t serve two masters. I don’t go to the parties. I hope you can hear me. But let me just say this, when I worked on the series The Women of Brewster Place, Oprah came to me as a friend and as a woman. I won’t go into what we actually discussed, but she did something for me, no one has ever done before. And I will never forget her for that. She gave me a lesson. She helped me out at a time when I was in a real bad place. She did me a favor and said, ‘I don’t want this back. I want you to learn the lesson.’  I recognize there’s a price you pay. We all pay. But the higher you climb, the greater the price. Some of us are willing to pay the price. Some of us pay the price and didn’t know we paid it until it’s too late. And some of us are just not interested.

Phyllis and her brother Timothy Stickney

50BOLD:  I’m intrigued, but will leave it alone… You have so many talents. Your kind of creative contributions are so needed in the industry!

Phyllis:  Well at this moment, I’d like to do a world tour. I did one with Patti LaBelle in 1991. It was the first time I was ever on a national tour and it was so exciting. Unfortunately, another comedian undercut me, and I’ve never done another tour since. It was so hurtful that I never spoke about it. I’m not Mo’Nique. I suffered in silence. But I do believe that my day, my time is now. I can get up on that stage and I don’t need a cane to walk up there. I don’t need a walker to walk up there. I can still prance in 5-inch heels. I can still give a great show that’ll make you laugh about something that happened last week, or 20 years ago. There are 20-year-olds in my audience. There are also 60-plus year olds in my audience. I’m going to continue to take the mic. I’m going to go to these comedy clubs and take the mic. I’m going to need this for a minute. My heart pumps no Kool-Aid. I’m tired of waiting silently.

50BOLD: Your life is a movie. You need to tell your story, you really do!

Phyllis:  Well, you know, I have a little studio here, so I can get away from the hustle and bustle. I duck away here in the studio; no one knows that I’m here. I have family here and only two people know when I’m in town because folks know I need my solitude and privacy. When I am out, I give all that I have to give. But when I’m writing, I’m really compiling because I’ve written bits and pieces of it. Part of it was called The Invisible Celebrity. And then I just thought the other day of something called The Loves of My Life. People always want to know, ‘What about your romances? Were you married?’ I’ve never discussed the intimate or romantic side of my life.

50BOLD:  You’re very private. First of all, no one knows your age. Have you’ve been married? Do you have children?

Phyllis:  I’ve been married. I’ve been married more than once. I never changed my last name and my husbands would always ask me to do so. But the no name change was part of the deal from the beginning. They knew. I said I would  be Mrs. X in private. In my comedy, I’d say I was divorced before the wedding pictures came back from the photographer. I was like, ‘Oops, I’m sorry, I made a mistake. I’m so sorry!’ [laughs]

50BOLD: You’ve got to be kidding me!

Phyllis: I would not kid you. But I’m thankful for the humor, you know that I was able to derive humor from those marital situations. I do have a Goddaughter. However, my biological children did not live. I’ve been a mother four times but none of them lived. And so, this has always been a hole in my life and in my heart because no one ever knew this. It happened before I came to New York and got into the industry. It happened when I was a young woman. And then, I tried later and was unable to really hold them; this  was maybe 20 years ago.

50BOLD: I am so sorry….  Is the actor Timothy Stickney your relative? What was the name of the soap opera he was in for many years?

Phyllis:  Tim was most recognized for his role as Randall James “R.J.” Gannon on ABC-TV’s soap opera One Life to Live. He was on that soap for about 13 years.

50BOLD:  I knew it! Just from the name Stickney, I knew you had to be related!

Phyllis:  He is my brother, oh yes! He is my twin. I told him he looks like a male me. I look like a female him. But since I’m the oldest in the family, he looks like me!

50BOLD:  I saw you on the Sherri Shepherd show. What can you pass along to our readers about your beauty regimen? You have excellent skin. What are you doing to age backward?

Phyllis: (laughs) Laughter is one of my main aging backward ingredients. I’m telling you, laughter is a big part of the regimen. First of all, I must sweat. I don’t care if it’s yoga. I don’t care if it’s walking. I don’t care if it’s line-dancing. I must walk, exercise, and break a sweat doing it. I’m also careful about what I eat. I have my little cheats, but I’m really careful about what I eat. I read labels so much that I kind of know what not to do. I pretty much try to prepare what I eat. I do eat out sometimes, but even then, I’m specific about the food. The fact that I still seem to be youthful is a blessing. I tend to not wear makeup unless it’s absolutely necessary. I do not think I need to look beat every day.

Phyllis’ recent appearance on the Sherri Shepherd show–ageless!

50BOLD: You have led quite a fascinating life. I am SO looking forward to your book!

Phyllis: I have to tell you my Phyllis Hyman story and how I met her! One day I was coming out of an audition for a movie. Phyllis had auditioned as well. I came out of the building and there was a limo parked outside; the window slid down. A woman said, ‘Girl, give me that hat. Where did you get that hat?’ And it was Phyllis Hyman. We had the best conversation! Fast forward, I shared a suite with someone and ran my business out of there. I hired a young woman who had allegedly dated Phyllis Hyman.

One day, the woman came into the office and said, ‘Ms. Stickney, I promise you, my personal life will not interfere with my employment here. My ex-lover left a message on your answering machine and you’re going to hear it.’ The message was from Phyllis. She was cursing me out because I neglected to call her before hiring my assistant! I never knew anything about their alleged personal relationship! Phyllis’ alleged homosexuality was unknown to me. Later, I learned that Phyllis’ pain was a lot to bear because she couldn’t live out her life authentically.

50BOLD: Phyllis, when it’s all said and done, and you meet your maker, what will the Creator say to you, other than ‘job well done?’

Phyllis:  I have held myself to such high standards because of my family and upbringing. I used to think ‘Oh my God! I’ve done things that I’m not proud of!’  But, I guess he would say, ‘You’ve repented and meant it!’