October 23, 2021

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AMERICAN THEATRE | The Drive of Phylicia Rashad

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Phylicia Rashad in rehearsal for “Our Lady of 121st St” by Stephen Adly Guirgis. (Photo by Gregory Costanzo)

Phylicia Rashad (née Phylicia Ayers Allen) graduated from Howard University and went on to become an actress and director with a wide-ranging career. Though best known in the wider culture for creating the role of Clair Huxtable on The Cosby Show (1984-1992), another role she created in its premiere may have even more lasting significance: that of the memory-holding matriarch Aunt Ester, in August Wilson’s 2003 play Gem of the Ocean. A year later, she was the first Black woman to win a Tony Award in the best actress category for her turn in a revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. She will next be seen on Broadway in Dominique Morisseau’s Skeleton Crew. (The fate of an Apollo Theatre revival of Charles Randolph Wright’s Blue, which she was slated to direct for an opening in spring 2020, is still unclear.)

Born in Texas to a talented family (her father was a dentist, her mother a Pulitzer-nominated poet, and her sister, Debbie Allen, an acclaimed dancer/actor/director in her own right), she cut her teeth with the Negro Ensemble Company, and made the first of many Broadway appearances in 1971 in Ain’s Supposed to Die a Natural Death. Her film credits span from Rocky (1976) to Creed II (2018), and among her many directing credits are several August Wilson plays.

The newest feather in her cap: She was recently appointed dean of the College of Fine Arts at Howard. I spoke to her recently about this new post and about her storied career.

NATHANIEL G. NESMITH: You graduated magna cum laude from Howard University with a BFA, and were recently appointed dean of the newly established College of Fine Arts at Howard. After a long and successful career as an artist, which role best prepared you for what you will need to be a successful dean at this new college?

PHYLICIA RASHAD: Preparation begins in childhood. When I think about my life, I can tell you that my preparation for what I’m doing today in life and for what I have done—my preparation began in childhood, living with my mother, Vivian Ayers, who is a poet, an art’s advocate, a cultural programmer, and a scholar. It began with the study of music when I was  a child. My mother was my first teacher: I studied viola, sang in the choir, and later studied piano. I also studied classical guitar. I was exposed to visual artists as a child. John Biggers was a constant visitor in our home; he and my mother had known each other since childhood. He was one of a number of visual artists who would come and visit. They all used to gather and had these great discussions.

I grew up this way, and for me, it was an integral part of my life. It begins in childhood, and it continues on through high school. I was in an academic program where I studied math and sciences. So I am educationally well-rounded. At the age of 13, my mother took me to live in another country. I developed a capacity to speak and study foreign languages, and also to appreciate cultures beyond the one in which I was living. I can truthfully say it started long before I started to perform on the stage.

So you are actually prepared already?

In some ways, yes. And it is new too. There are a number of things I don’t know. I have served as adjunct faculty at New York University, at Fordham University, and at Vassar College.

I am aware that you have 13 honorary doctorates: from Howard, Spelman College, the University of South Carolina at Columbia, Tuskegee University, Brown University, Bennett College, St. Augustine College, Providence College, Barber Scotia College, Clark Atlanta University, Morris Brown College, Carnegie Mellon University, and Fordham University. Are there more?

Oh, I don’t know how many I have.  That’s probably right.

Playwright Paul Carter Harrison taught theatre at Howard from 1968 to 1970. You, your sister, Clinton Turner Davis, Pearl Cleage, and also Linda Goss were among his students. What was that experience like studying with Paul Carter Harrison?

That was a very interesting experience, because at the time he came to Howard University, he had been in Europe for many years, and he was returning. He walked into a culture that was exciting and new. America was in crisis, with war abroad and a conflict at home. Young people were rising to say, “No.  We don’t want to do it this way anymore.” It was an interesting time. And it was also an interesting time for him.

An exceptional break for you was landing the role of Clair Huxtable on The Cosby Show. You had to beat out many actresses for it. What’s the history behind getting that role? Was it just the audition itself?

That’s what we all did—we all auditioned.

This is something you said about Clair Huxtable in 1987: “It is like this coat. I’m going to go home after this and hang it up in the closet. One day, I’ll go home and hang up Clair in the closet too.” What was like to leave that character behind—to walk away from a character that was so important in your career?

First of all, as a young actor, as a student, you are changing roles all the time. If you are paying attention, you understand that you will do yourself a great favor not to become too attached to any one role because the day always comes for the final performance of any work that you are doing. So why become attached?

You also played the role of Diana Dubois on the Fox TV series Empire. In retrospect, what would you like to share about that experience?

That was so much fun. At one point, it was fueled by performing Shakespeare in the Park—fueled by performing onstage period. One summer I was performing Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the park, and then the other play was Head of Passes at the Mark Taper. During the summer of performing Head of Passes, I would fly to Chicago every Monday to film, so I didn’t have days off. I would leave on Sunday night, take the late flight out, get in the early hours of the morning and sleep for a couple of hours, and get up. But the thing about performing in theatre while I was doing Empire was the facility for language and being very quick-witted, because Diana DuBois had a quick wit. She was a female cobra in a corner.

Phylicia Rashad, Danny Burstein, Warren Wyss, Vinie Burrows, and Keith Hart in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park. (Photo By Joan Marcus)

You just mentioned Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Head of Passes. You also worked with Tarell on the series David Makes Man, on the OWN Network. What was it like working with his material in two mediums, and what was it like working with him?

Tarell Alvin McCraney is a genius; he just is. That’s the big and the small, the long and the short of it; he is a genius. He is a scholar; he is a poet; he is a humorist; he is an Orisha. He is many things, and he is always after a new expression. I was honored to be asked to perform in both his play and his premiere television series. I was honored. At first my participation in Head of Passes was simply to be a part of the reading in New York. They were preparing to present the play at the Public Theater, and Kyle Beltran asked me if I would be interested in doing a reading of the play and I said, “Sure, I will.”  As I was participating in the reading, I thought—that was the first play since Gem of the Ocean that affected me in the way it did. What do I mean by that? Literally, the text—the text would wake me up in the middle of the night to come and study it, to learn it as it is written, because it is complex, rhythmically complex. You cannot miss a beat. If a word is off, the rhythm is off, and if the rhythm is off, everything is off. It is a marvelous work that demanded so much and it gave everything.

I’ve read that in 1971 you had three job offers at the same time: Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death on Broadway, a touring company production of Jesus Christ Superstar, and Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope at Washington’s Ford’s Theatre. You decided on Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope—and you were fired within a week. What would you like to share about that experience?

That experience was very interesting, because I called my mother to say that I had three job offers, and when I told her what they were, she said, “Of course, you have to do the play at the Ford’s Theatre. Lincoln was shot there, you know.” That’s my mom for you! So what did I learn from this experience of making a decision that did not bode well? After a week, when I went to rehearsal and I was told, “You don’t have to come back, so-and-so is available now and she’s going to play the role,” it was earth-shattering. I had always been number one, and now I was number none. I lived through that. It was a feeling of numbness, in which I didn’t feel as if my feet were on the ground. It was like being in a void, and yet I was not going to give in, and I was not going to give up. My mother wanted me to come home, sensing my deep hurt, sensing my pain and the confusion of it all. She said, “You should come home and work with me in the gallery.” I told her no. I said. “I came here to work here, and I am going to stay and I am going to continue.” And I did.

And there was grace in all of this, because as a result of that, I ended up doing three plays: Don’t Let It Go to Your Head, under the direction of Gilbert Moses at the New Federal Theatre. Then I was cast by Gilbert Moses again in The Duplex, which was done at Lincoln Center, then I was offered the understudy role in Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death, in which I understudied four parts, and I performed in three.

That was the musical by Melvin Van Peebles, which you and Ossie Davis joined on Broadway in 1971, and which has been announced for a revival in 2022. What can you share about that experience?

Ossie was a guest who came in. Bill Cosby was a guest one time, and Ossie was a guest one time, but they were not part of the permanent company. That full company, the permanent company, was amazing: Garrett Morris, Bill Duke, Carl Gordon, Albert Hall, Arthur French. Minnie Gentry, who was theatre royalty. Dick Anthony Williams, Marilyn Coleman, and others.

Were you a replacement in The Wiz in 1975, and what can you share about that experience?

No, I was a Munchkin; I was a fielding; I was a field mouse; I was a Quadling; I was a Winkie, and I was understudying the role of Glinda, the good witch of the South.

In 1988, you played the witch in Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, replacing Bernadette Peters, on Broadway. What is the history behind your playing this role?

That was a surprise—a very pleasant one. That was during a summer hiatus of The Cosby Show. Actually, it came on the heels of a strike. I was last and went into that right away; I think maybe we had a two-week rehearsal. I was working with a brilliant cast. Their voices were amazing; the music was fine. It was so much fun to do, each and every day.

Gary Yates, Mark C Young, Phylicia Rashad, Bill Nunn and Deidrie N Henry in “Blues for an Alabama Sky” at the Alliance Theatre in 1995. (Photo Courtesy of the Alliance Theatre)

In 1995, you worked with your Howard University classmate playwright Pearl Cleage in her play Blues for an Alabama Sky at the Alliance Theatre, under the direction of Kenny Leon. You played the role of Angel Allen, the down-and-out blues singer in the play. What would you like to share about that experience of working with Leon and Cleage?

Coming to Atlanta to perform at the Alliance Theatre under Kenny’s direction was quite the experience. I had not worked for a year. But I liked Kenny as soon as I met him. I knew I had found my director. As an actress, you want to find your director; you want to find that person who is going to bring out the best in you. He was that for me. He was the first director who dared to see me as an actress capable of many things. He was the first to see me that way.

Now, Pearl Cleage is my girl. [Laughs] Listen, this is coming full circle. Nobody writes like Pearl Cleage does. She will write about very serious matters, and she puts it in a context that doesn’t make it light and fluffy, but does bring you some laughter in the midst of the most serious matter.

Off-Broadway in 1999, you played Zora Neale Hurston in Thulani Davis’s Everybody’s Ruby (1999), who was reporting on the case of a Black woman murdering a white man in 1952 in Live Oak, Fla. Kenny Leon directed, and Viola Davis played the role of Ruby, the accused murderer. What can you share about that experience?

That was an epic kind of play. When I think back on that play–I couldn’t see it, because you can’t see it when you are in it—it was large, the scope of it. A friend of mine had given me a book about the story of Ruby McCollum, which was written by a man who could get the story printed, because Zora Neale Hurston couldn’t; she gave him all her notes and he wrote the book. That book was not allowed to be sold in the state of Florida. When we performed the play, people from Zora Neale Hurston’s family came and saw it; there were also people from Ruby McCollum’s family who came to the play. Thulani Davis did a marvelous job in crafting that play.  Marvelous.

You worked with your sister, Debbie Allen, in the television version of John Henry Redwood’s play The Old Settler (2001), which is about a woman battling spinsterhood. I knew John, and was devastated when I came across his obituary in The New York Times. Shauneille Perry did the teleplay and your sister directed it. What was that experience like  for you?

We had known Shauneille Perry from our days in theatre, in those way-Off-Broadway productions and enjoyed working under her direction. It was really wonderful when Deborah could ask her to come and write the teleplay.

Diahann Carroll was in Charles Randolph-Wright’s Blue with you in 2002. What would you like to share about that experience?

Charles Randolph-Wright and I were chorus members—ensemble members they call us now—in Dreamgirls. We would step to the bad side every night, and we were reporters in, “Tell us, Miss Jones, how does it feel to be the lead of a hot new group today?” We were onstage together every night and we were friends. And years later he comes with a play. I read the first act and I thought, “Well, this is very clever.” And when I read the second act, I thought, “I have to do this play.” A beautifully crafted play.

In 1960, Claudia McNeil was the first Black woman nominated for a Tony Award in a dramatic lead role; she lost to Anne Bancroft in The Miracle Worker. What did it mean to you to become the first Black woman to win in that category for A Raisin in the Sun?

Kenny Leon called me and he said we are going to do A Raisin in the Sun, and said, “I want you to play Mama,” because that is how she used to be referred to, and I said, “Why do you want me to do that?” And he said, “Because I think you will do something different; I think that you will do something new.” I said, “Okay.” It was an opportunity to work with him again. In this cast, Audra McDonald was playing Ruth Younger, and Sanaa Lathan was Beneatha Younger. I had known Sanaa since she was a baby. Her mother, Eleanor McCoy, danced with Debbie in George Faison Universal Dance Experience, and I met Eleanor in early years in New York. When we were doing The Wiz, Eleanor was in the ensemble with me, and Sanaa and my son, Billy, were babies and used to play together. And now I was going to be onstage with her. It was great. And I thought, “Okay, I can do this.” Then Kenny called me one night to tell me that Sean Combs, Sean Puffy Combs, would play the role of Walter Lee.

One of the historical productions that you were in on Broadway was in 2008, in an all-Black cast of Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. James Earl Jones was your co-star, and you played the role of Big Mama.

To be onstage with James Earl Jones was manna from heaven. This was something I never, even dared to dream of.  I never even dared to dream that I would share the stage with him. Years before—many, many years before—I was an understudy in the Public Theater’s production of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. It started out with his directing it and I was cast as an understudy, but then he ended up performing in it; I didn’t ever really perform with him. But then, to be working with him in this capacity, in this way; it was—what do you say? And then we went to London and reprised everything there, with partly a British cast. That was magic, just pure magic. You’re talking about an actor who goes so deep, and makes it appear so effortless, who is totally invested in the play, in the story, in the character that he is playing, and you see it when you are working with him. You see it in his eyes. He is always investigating something new. He does not always talk about it, nor should one. Sometimes it is a whole lot better to do the work than talk about it.

Also on Broadway, you went into Tracy Letts’s August: Osage County in 2009, in the role of Violet Weston, a drug-addicted matriarch. What attracted you to this character?

That was a very well-written play. I went and saw that play before we began rehearsals for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I think it had opened when I saw it. When I saw that play, I said, “Oh, my goodness, look at this.” It was mastery on every level. When Jeffrey Richards called to suggest that I play Violet Weston, I couldn’t speak for a day. I had never imagined that happening, and yet it did.

You just agreed to star in the Broadway premiere of Dominique Morisseau’s Skeleton Crew at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre at the end of this year, into next year. It will be directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson. What led you to take on this extra task, as you’ll be exceptionally busy at Howard?

Well, I was invited to be in this play prior to being appointed dean. By the time I was appointed, there were three distinct projects that I was committed to, and this was one of them. When I read Skeleton Crew—once again, here we go with very distinct rhythms. Here we go with real people. Here we go with each character being endowed with dignity—people you would pass on the street and not give a second thought to, most likely. People whose labor touches your own life every day that you don’t necessarily think about. You certainly don’t think about it in that way. What an opportunity! I am an actor, right? You show me a good role and I am going to say, “Oh, yeah! Yes! Yes!!” And a role that’s going to demand everything that you got to give. There is no sleepwalking here.

You were the first recipient of the Denzel Washington Chair in Theater at Fordham University. What did you share with the students in this position?

This was about creating a character, and what I was sharing with them was based on my experience of performing August Wilson’s Aunt Ester; it was creating the character through voice. Theatre is a lab; it is a laboratory. It really is. We were experimenting and learning. And then when I came to watch a student production and saw the students implementing everything that we had discussed, and then to hear them talk about how the study had influenced the work that they did and the benefits they found in it—I was very happy about that.

Finally, what will be your highest priority once you put on your dean’s hat at Howard University?

Service!

Nathaniel G. Nesmith (he/him) holds an MFA in playwriting and a Ph.D. in theatre from Columbia University.

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