Phylicia Rashad: A Special Interview for Women's History Month

By: Mar. 26, 2005
Last in a series for Women's History Month.

Her historic Tony win last spring got the most attention, but this has been a year of honors for Phylicia Rashad, Broadway gypsy turned TV star turned stage doyenne. At a February benefit, the Classical Theatre of Harlem presented Rashad with the Rose McClendon Trailblazer Award, and next month she will receive the Apple Award for career excellence in theater, established by the Nederlander Organization at Detroit's Wayne State University.

It was the award she won last June 6, however, that has gone into the record books. Honored for her portrayal of Lena Younger in A Raisin in the Sun, Rashad became the first black actress to win a Tony for a leading role in a non-musical. But she discourages any soapboxing about winning Tonys or breaking a color barrier. "When the business of art becomes about winning awards, then art becomes something else," she says. "Tony Awards are wonderful and we rejoice for people who receive them, but as an artist this is not the goal, and if it becomes the goal, we've taken another direction. That's not what I trained in; that's not who I am."

As for whether her being the first African American to win in her category reflects on the quality of roles available to black actresses, she states: "That's such a tired old song. I'd rather not sing it. What year is this? 2005—and we're still singing the same old tired songs. Why don't we just drop this and live, why don't we just drop this and work?"

Which is not to say Phylicia Rashad is reluctant to express her opinions. Just pick the right topic—arts education, say, or the appropriate reverence for theater. Or the marketing of her last show, August Wilson's Gem of the Ocean, which needed a last-minute angel to get to Broadway after another backer withdrew (it opened a month later than originally planned), only to close after just two months. "You want to know how I feel about stuff?" Rashad says. "Let me tell you..." Then, describing her offstage experience with Gem of the Ocean, she diplomatically begins: "It was a very interesting way of doing things.

"I've been in theater for a number of years, and I don't ever recall being approached by producers saying that we don't see the sense in spending X amount of dollars on newspaper advertisements when three days later people will use them to wrap fish in. I don't ever recall being in a theatrical production anywhere where I was approached by people who were working with the publicity asking us to go to churches and read inspirational readings while the choir sang in the background, as an advertisement for our show. I just didn't understand it. Not only that, to my knowledge there were no other shows that were asking cast members to do such things.

"What that says to me," she says, "is somebody's not thinking right. It was not the way theatrical productions are advertised that I'd ever been a part of. People go to church to worship, not to have somebody come in to advertise something. All I know is there were ads in the paper for the last two weeks, and you couldn't get a ticket."

Her ultimate appraisal of how the play was promoted: "I don't know what that was; I just know what it wasn't." It wasn't something that respected the play as a theatrical event, according to Rashad. "Theater is an art form that has its origins in worship—worship of creation, worship of humanity, worship of the creator in humanity," she says. "Theater's purpose originally, what theater did, was pose some questions to human beings about themselves—how they live, how they think, what is their relationship to right and wrong, what is their duty as human beings, what is their relationship to each other, what is their relationship to one's own self.

"This is what I trained to do, and this is what I love about theater," Rashad continues. "What I love about being an actress is being able to really look into myself and understand another human being. And out of my own self, to shape and form and fashion a real human being—and to present that in such a way that people see something of themselves or their own understanding in that human being."

Despite Gem of the Ocean's failure on Broadway (it had run previously in Chicago, Los Angeles and Boston), it may earn Rashad another Tony. She made an astounding physical and vocal transformation to play Aunt Ester, a 285-year-old former slave who counsels lost souls in 1904 Pittsburgh. In preparing for the role, she says, "I began to really regard elderly women, and I saw more beauty than I ever imagined." She saw it especially in Aunt Ester, even with her girth, weathered visage and gray hair. "She's beautiful because she is rooted in that which most of us never imagine," says Rashad, "and she's beautiful because she lives with great purpose. She's beautiful because she holds in her heart the feelings of many people, more than just herself, and she holds great feeling for them. She's beautiful because in any moment, whether she's being a shameless flirt or a prankster or a guide or a disciplinarian, she embodies so much love. Even when she's cantankerous. She's all kind of things; she's not just one way. She's not a cute little old lady. She's a whole human being who has seen many things and seen through many things, and she is very, very much one with her intuition."

Rashad's appearance as Aunt Ester shocked those who still thought of her as stylish buppie mom Clair Huxtable on The Cosby Show, television's No. 1 series from 1985 to 1990. Before The Cosby Show made her a star, she had performed on Broadway in the ensembles of The Wiz and Dreamgirls (and had done a couple of soaps). A Raisin in the Sun brought Rashad back to Broadway for the first time since she took over for Tonya Pinkins in Jelly's Last Jam in the early '90s. Since completing her second sitcom as Bill Cosby's wife, Cosby, in 2000, she has worked regularly in regional and off-Broadway theater—originating roles in Blue and Blues for an Alabama Sky, portraying Zora Neale Hurston in Everybody's Ruby and the title role in Medea, and being one of many actresses who spoke The Vagina Monologues—and done a play for TV, the 2001 PBS production of The Old Settler costarring her sister, Debbie Allen.

Seeing theater flourish all over the country has been one of the pleasures of Rashad's career. "The regional theaters have grown stronger," she says, "and I've enjoyed a lot of good work at them: at the Huntington in Boston, at Arena Stage in Washington, at the Alliance in Atlanta, at the Hartford Stage in Connecticut, and at the Mark Taper [Forum, L.A.] and the Pasadena Playhouse. I find some of the most creative work being done in regional theaters, and I've witnessed great community support. If they don't give way to thinking that they have to hire stars and can trust the work of the theater and can hire whomever, this good work will continue."

But theater in the United States is being harmed, she says, by education policymaking. "I don't understand why we as taxpaying citizens are paying taxes and electing people who take things from us—and specifically what I mean is taking arts education out of the school system. And I don't understand why we as a society of people who have been privileged for decades to have had this are allowing this, why we just accept it, why we have forgotten the education is for the people. Last time I looked, that's what we use to say: of the people, by the people, for the people.

"As we move more into the computer age, in which people are not required to think deeply so much as know how to navigate and manipulate an electronic system, things can be lost—unless we understand to use that system as support and not as an alternative to one's brainpower," says Rashad. "If our young people aren't developed in literature and thinking skills and discernment, then theater's going to start looking like plastic. My mother always said that a good writer reads a lot. And so when we put everything to computer and stop reading, what do we expect? When we develop computers that compose music for us, what do we expect?"

Rashad will often invoke her mother when discussing her love of the arts. "Had it not been for my mother, we [she and her sister] wouldn't be doing what we are doing," she says. Rashad's mother is a published poet and author who was involved in many cultural programs in their hometown of Houston. "My mother found ways to introduce us to art, to also introduce us to the idea that human potential is beyond limit, and to ground us in the reality that as human beings it's our duty to explore this potential and to experience it fully," she says.

Rashad's mother influenced her career in another way as well. "My mama says I'm always being her, no matter what role I play," she laughs. "There's truth in that because she is many different women." Incorporating personalities or gestures of women she has known is just one aspect of developing a character for Rashad. She explains: "Many years ago I was studying a singing technique called bel canto. And when you study this technique, the first thing the teacher does is to make you sing as softly as possible, going up the entire scale. The reason for this is to find the center of your voice, because it is from that center that all of your singing will take place. Without understanding it, I had melded that into my work as an actor. I start quietly, because I want to find the center. I want to find the core, the heart of the human being. And from that everything else grows."

It was tempting to begin with Aunt Ester's advanced age when creating that character, but Rashad still worked from the inside out. "What I had to find was what she thought about, and how she felt about it. What was important to her and why. What was it that she wanted to do, and how was she seeing herself do it," she says. "Then I looked at the people around her, and how she saw them in the moment that you see in the play. As surely as I was working on those things, physical movement began to change, and the voice began to change, and I began to feel her rhythm."

Like Aunt Ester, Raisin in the Sun's Lena is a maternal figure who has endured racial injustices. Their similarities go deeper than that, though. "They're both women of great faith," Rashad says. "They're women who live with nature and the earth, and like to grow things. They're similar in that they have this quality of enduring love and they are resilient." And then she switches sides: "They are different in the time in which they live, although Lena does have awareness and ramification of Ester's time in a way that her children, Walter Lee and Beneatha, don't have. They are different in their experience of reality. Lena's entire focus and reality is with her family and her faith that faith will see them through. Aunt Ester's reality is larger than this. It encompasses realms of reality—not just the immediate physical presence, but things that you cannot see. And Lena is a strong woman, but her strength doesn't manifest the way Aunt Ester's does. They both speak up, but Aunt Ester, she don't waste too much time. Lena tries to slow things, gently; Aunt Ester sees a situation and she'll go right at it."

Gem's early closing meant Rashad had to let Aunt Ester go, but she has found some consolation. "I am having a good time doing nothing. I think it's safe to say that this was necessary, because I'd been working consistently for an extended period of time, from one project to the next, without much of a break in between any of them.

"I am really in a state of relaxed enjoyment. I enjoy the peace and quiet of my home, and I enjoy the company of good friends. I'm enjoying seeing theater too," she adds. "It also gives me time to focus on a lot of personal matters that cannot be attended to with great attention when one is engaged in work in the theater. Contrary to what most people think, theater artists don't sleep till 12:30 in the afternoon and wake up eating Godiva chocolates. The whole day is spent gearing up to go to work. The entire day is in one class or another, in one preparation or another. And if you have a family, that's another factor."

Rashad has a son in his early 30s and an 18-year-old daughter, who wants to be a performer. Confident of her daughter's talent, she supports her ambition. "The thing that I like most about it," she says, "is when she was a little girl, she was sitting at the piano one day and she said, 'Mommy, I need a reading teacher, I need a piano teacher, and I need a dance teacher—can you get me those things?' I looked at her and I thought: Oh, my goodness, look at this, she's asking for instruction. I like that." All motherly subjectiveness aside, the proud mom says, "She's very good," recalling that she was delightfully impressed when she first heard her daughter sing in a junior high concert. Rashad herself has had singing gigs in addition to her acting jobs, performing in cabarets, concerts and with symphony orchestras around the country. She's also been part of the gospel choir called Broadway Inspirational Voices.

As she weighs the difficulties and rewards of her profession, Rashad can only conclude: "It's a beautiful life, it's a full life, it's a rich life, and I'm very thankful for it."

This profile of Phylicia Rashad, an actor, is the final installlment in BroadwayWorld's series on groundbreaking women in theater; featured earlier were a producer, Nelle Nugent; a designer, Beverly Emmons; and a composer, Elizabeth Swados.

Photos, from top: Rashad at last June's Tony Awards; with Lisa Gay Hamilton in Gem of the Ocean; with Alexander Mitchell and Audra McDonald in A Raisin in the Sun; with sister Debbie Allen in The Old Settler; in her Tony-winning performance as Lena Younger. [Photo credits: Richard Drew/Associated Press; Carol Rosegg; Joan Marcus; KCET Hollywood; Joan Marcus]