Phyllis Yvonne Stickney
Actress | Class of 1998
Phyllis Yvonne Stickney is an actress, comedian, poet, playwright, producer, and motivational speaker best known for her television and film roles in the late 1980s and 1990s. She was noted in the twenty-fifth anniversary issue of Essence magazine as one of 200 African-American women who have changed the world.
Phyllis Stickney was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, to Belle Stickney and Felix Stickney, Jr. She has publicly been vague about her age, and no available sources offer the year of her birth. Her father was an executive with the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), and the family moved frequently. She has two siblings, one of whom, Timothy, is also an actor and a director. Stickney studied at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and taught drama at the University of Delaware before relocating to New York City in 1979. She eventually settled in Harlem. In 1989, she married Rayford Galen Griffith, a jazz musician; the couple, who had no children, later divorced.
Stickney asserts that she naturally gravitated toward comedy as a way to get attention or to be “different.” As an aspiring actress in New York, she honed her acting and comedic skills performing in predominately black theaters and on the streets of the city in public sites such as Washington Square Park. She also received theater training at the University of the Streets Theater and New Heritage Repertory Theatre (now the Heritage Theatre Group), working with her mentor, Robert Furman. Furman, a playwright and director, founded New Heritage in 1964 to provide training, exposure, and experience to artists of color; it is the oldest nonprofit black theater company in New York City. Stickney soon gained recognition for her work with Furman. In 1983, she won an 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 Baptiste, the Con Man.
It was, however, comedic performances that introduced Stickney to a wider audience. In 1986, she won first place at Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater. This led to engagements at comedy clubs throughout the city. Later that year, she was the opening act for singer Roberta Flack during her 1986 tour. She was also the warm-up announcer for NBC’s The Cosby Show in 1986 and 1987.
In 1989, Stickney was cast as “Cora,” a single mother of five children, in the ABC-TV miniseries The Women of Brewster Place, adapted from the Gloria Naylor novel of the same title. The miniseries depicts the lives of seven urban African-American women who live in the Brewster Place Housing Project and featured an ensemble cast that also starred Robin Givens, Lynn Whitfield, Cicely Tyson, and Oprah Winfrey.
In 1990, Stickney brought her comedic timing and Afro-centric flair to network weekly television. She co-starred in New Attitude, a short-lived mid-season replacement. The comedy featured Stickney and actress Sheryl Lee Ralph as sisters and co-owners of a beauty salon. The series lasted only eight episodes, but Stickney continued to have guest appearances on a variety of television programs, including Law & Order, New York Undercover, and Linc’s. Her film credits include New Jack City, Jungle Fever, Malcolm X, What’s Love Got to Do with It, The Inkwell, Die Hard with a Vengeance, and How Stella Got Her Groove Back.
Stickney continued to work in theater as an actress, director, and producer. In 1994, she appeared as Jesse in a stage version of the Gloria Naylor novel Bailey’s Café. That same year, she earned her second AUDELCO for Outstanding One-Person Performance for Big Momma ‘n’ ’Em, which was written and performed by Stickney. She convincingly plays five different urban black women in crisis. The title character, Big Momma, was modeled after Stickney’s own grandmother. The play highlighted Stickney’s skill as a storyteller and contemporary African griot. Big Momma ‘n’ ’Em is also one of the plays featured in Black Comedy: 9 Plays, A Critical Anthology with Interviews and Essays (1997).
In 2001, Stickney made her directorial debut and also starred in Been There, Done That, a gospel stage play starring television personality Judge Greg Mathis and gospel singer Fred Hammond. She often returns to Arkansas, and she appeared in the Arkansas Repertory Theatre’s adaptation of A Raisin in the Sun in 2011, playing Lena Younger.
Stickney is also an author. Her book Loud Thoughts for Quiet Moments (1988) is a compilation of her poetry, which she has been writing since the age of ten, and her personal perspectives. She gives back to the community in a variety of ways, including her program Alternative Careers in the Arts, which provides technical training for at-risk youth in various aspects of the entertainment business.