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.”
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…