Cherry Jones may not be a household name on the same level as Ellen DeGeneres, but the openly lesbian Tony Award-winning Broadway actress has contributed significantly to gay and lesbian visibility in the U.S. since she first stepped onto the stage in the late 1970s.
The 47-year-old actress’s professional life has been punctuated by several gay rights triumphs, most significantly her 1995 Tony Award acceptance speech in which she thanked her longtime partner, Mary O’Connor, an architect. With that speech, Jones became the first openly lesbian actress to win a Tony Award—just one of the reasons GLAAD recently honored Jones with the Vito Russo Award, named after the author of The Celluloid Closet and presented annually to an openly queer entertainer who has furthered the visibility of the GLBT community.
As a child growing up in Paris, Tennessee, Jones knew that she was gay, and she knew that if she remained in Paris she would have a very difficult time being out. As she told The Advocate in 1999, “It sure is a lot easier to be out. Especially if you’re living somewhere where you’re allowed to be.”
Jones also knew from an early age that she wanted to be an actress, and after graduating from Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania, she joined the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she remained throughout the 1980s. She made her Broadway debut as the Angel in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, and was quickly nominated for a Tony for her role in Our Country’s Good (1991).
In 1993 Jones starred in lesbian playwright Paula Vogel’s And Baby Makes Seven, as one half of a lesbian couple having a baby. The play—in which Jones kissed another woman as part of her role, a move that shocked many people in the audience at the time—was a critical flop, and Jones told The Advocate in 1999 that “it was the biggest disaster I ever had in my career. I had a nervous breakdown.”
Jones’s career took off, however, when she took on the lead role in a revival of The Heiress, a critically acclaimed performance that garnered her a Tony award in 1995 for Best Actress. Her landmark speech thanking her then-partner at the Tony Awards did not receive much national media attention, but reactions in Jones’s small hometown of Paris, Tennessee, were much more mixed. Jones’s family decided to not respond to several letters to the editor of the local newspaper which expressed praise for Jones but not for her “lifestyle.”
In 2001 Jones starred with Brooke Shields in the Lifetime TV movie What Makes a Family, directed by Maggie Greenwald and executive produced by Whoopi Goldberg. What Makes a Family was based on the true story of a Florida lesbian mother’s fight to maintain custody of her child after the death of her partner; in real life, the lesbian mother happily won her custody battle in 1989. Since then Jones has returned to the stage in a production of Nora Ephron’s Imaginary Friends, about the literary feud between Mary McCarthy (played by Jones) and Lillian Helman (played by Swoosie Kurtz), author of The Children’s Hour, and she is now starring in John Patrick Shanley’s play Doubt.
While Cherry Jones’s primary loyalty has always been to the theater, she has also acted in several films, including Signs (2002), Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (2002), The Perfect Storm (2000), and Erin Brockovich (2000). This fall she can be found on the big screen in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village, playing village elder Mrs. Clack. She also currently guest-stars on CBS’s family baseball drama Clubhouse, as school principal Sister Marie.
One might expect that Jones, a “high priestess” of Broadway with a growing film career, would be living a life of glamour. But Jones is usually described as “genuinely humble,” and she lives simply in a small New York apartment, getting around the city on her bicycle. There is no denying, however, that because of her efforts—and her honesty—other gay women in theater have found it just a little bit easier to succeed, on-stage and off.
June 2005 Update: Cherry Jones won another Best Actress Tony award for her role as an unyielding nun in Doubt. She is now openly dating actress Sarah Paulson.