Phylicia Rashad's appreciation for theatre started at age 11, when she was selected as the mistress of ceremonies for a musical festival for all local elementary schools in her hometown of Houston, Texas. "I stood there in the spotlight for the first time in my life and it was blinding," she recalled. "All I could see was light. I just stood there and talked to the light very freely."
Her early experience onstage inspired Rashad to dedicate her professional life to discovering, learning, and honing the craft and trade of theatre performance. And as anyone who's tried to make a living in the theatre will attest, it wasn't easy. As she recalled in a recent interview with Back Stage West, Rashad spent the better part of the 1970s trying to balance finding work with motherhood. During her formative years as a burgeoning actress, she endured fits of discontent, stretches of unemployment, and several failed auditions that cause her to question herself. But a determined Rashad persevered over these common pitfalls of the business and successfully pressed on.
"I never thought, I'm not doing this," said Rashad. "I never said I couldn't take this. I never doubted I was where I wanted to be—but I used to wonder if I was doing something wrong, because it seemed like it was taking forever to get to that place as an actress where you were one of those who worked all the time."
In the Presence of Legends
As a sophomore at Howard University, in Washington, D.C., Rashad got the opportunity to work as an intern with the famed Negro Ensemble Company. Prior to the 1960s, there were virtually no legit live-performance outlets for the wealth of African-American actors in America. It was very difficult for playwrights writing realistically about the African-American experience to get their work produced. Therefore disenfranchised artists, such as Hattie McDaniel and Butterfly McQueen, set out to create a theatre concentrating primarily on themes of African-American life. In 1965 playwright Douglas Turner Ward, actor Robert Hooks, and theatre manager Gerald Kone came together to make these dreams a reality with the Negro Ensemble Company.
"I came to New York for a summer to intern at the Negro Ensemble Company, working as part of what was called the Monday Night series," Rashad recalled. "I was there during the greatest of great times. It was the company's heyday. I was in the theatre every night watching Rosalind Cash, Ally Woods, Norman Bush, Moses Gunn, and Esther Rolle. Now imagine this little college child who just finished her sophomore year sitting in the audience watching these great artists perform Song of the Lusitanian Bogey and Daddy Goodness in repertory. These were the people I was trying to emulate. That was the direction in which I wanted to go."
Encouraged and convinced of her dream more than ever, after graduating magna cum laude from Howard, Rashad set her sights on joining the ranks of some of the actors who were members of the NEC and had moved to the Big Apple. Her career journey began with roles in "bus and truck" touring companies. Said Rashad, "I was going around the country jumping off the bus onto college stages to perform a play, hopping back on a bus, staying in some strange hotel. Woo! We stayed in one that was so old it even had a Murphy bed. I'm telling you I couldn't believe I left the comforts of my home and came into this new world to be an actress. I hadn't been out of college but a year when I got that job. But looking back the experience was really great."
After the bus-and-truck stints, there was a period of no work for Rashad. She took a job as a typist to support herself and her young son. "I did a summer temp job and at the end of the summer came all the great opportunities. Ain't Supposed To Die a Natural Death was going to Broadway, and everybody of ethnic hue was auditioning," said Rashad. "Then there was another bus-and-truck company of Jesus Christ Superstar, and then Don't Bother Me I Can't Cope was going to the Ford Theater. Well, I was like everyone else of ethnic hue: auditioning all summer long. Everything came at the same time, but I ended up taking a minor role in Don't Bother Me I Can't Cope."
Rashad then landed a string of understudy roles in a few shows, including Ain't Supposed To Die a Natural Death with the late director Gilbert Moses and The Cherry Orchard at the Public Theater. It all led to an audition for one of the most anticipated productions at that time, The Wiz. She recalled the experience: "I show up at the dance audition—I didn't know it was the dance audition—in a white summer dress, some yellow pumps, and my baby in a stroller. I line up with the rest of the dancers ready to do the combination. The choreographer looked at me and said, 'That's all right, Phylicia.' Then it was time to sing. Well, honey, I'd been so busy changing diapers, I didn't have any time to prepare a song. So I went out there ready to sing 'The Man I Love,' but they didn't want that, they wanted something more contemporary."
On the suggestion of the musical arranger, Harold Wheeler, Rashad chose the Isaac Hayes song "Never Can Say Goodbye" as her audition piece. However, she forgot most of the lyrics while she was singing. Nevertheless, she booked the job. "Years later, I was talking to Harold and I said, 'You know that audition…?' [laughing]. He smiled and said, 'I do.' I said, 'Harold, tell me this, why did you hire me?' He said, 'We decided anyone with that much spirit needed to be in the show.'"
Rashad spent three and a half years performing in The Wiz as a munchkin, field mouse, winky, and understudying the Good Witch of the West. She continued to showcase her abilities in chorus and understudy roles but she hadn't broken into the realm of the leading lady.
Taking the Lead
After The Wiz Rashad didn't work onstage for about two years. Then she landed an audition for the soap opera One Life to Live and the Broadway production of Michael Bennett's legendary musical Dreamgirls at the same time. The job that came through was Dreamgirls—as an understudy again. "I sat there and thought, Lord, why do I have to do this again? And inside I heard, Because this time you're going to do it right."
For Rashad, doing it right meant she was going to work harder than she had ever worked in her life. She was going to spend as much time in the theatre as possible. At the time, the producers of the show were putting the California company together; surely, she thought, her hard work and dedication would not go unnoticed when it came time to cast. "Everyone was saying, 'Oh, you're sure to get the role of Dena.' Well, [the director] walked into the rehearsals that day, looked around, and in his most nonchalant Sunday voice said, 'You are Dena'—and pointed to the second understudy."
A dejected Rashad called her mother, who advised her to leave the production immediately. "I said, 'But, Mother, you only give your notice when you get another job.' She said, 'That's right and if you stay there, you may never have another job to go to.' I walked up the stairs. It was a very crucial moment, I wanted to be sure that I really spoke the truth of my sentiments without any hint, without any inkling, without the minute presence of arrogance, pride, anger, any of those things. I begged God to sit on my tongue so that only the truth would pass my lips. I said, 'I know who I am and I knew who I was before I came. I am not an understudy. I am a leading lady and it's time for me to realize myself and my profession.'"
Her Share of Genius
Rashad showed off her rededicated acting chops in the Negro Ensemble Company's 25th anniversary production of A Raisin in the Sun. And it was during that time she landed the role that made her famous: Clair Huxtable on The Cosby Show.
Classy, warm, and elegant offstage, Rashad translated this blend of grace and sharpness to the small screen, as the high-powered attorney wife to Bill Cosby's Dr. Cliff Huxtable and mother of five, unflappable despite the antics of her five kids—and sometimes those of her husband. TV critics credit the series, which focused on the everyday adventures of an upper-middle-class African-American family, with reviving the situation comedy and saving a beleaguered NBC network.
"We were not trying to create the typical formulated humor of a television sitcom," said Rashad in an interview on ETonline.com. "We were looking at people's attitudes, as opposed to just trying to get a rhythm going where somebody says something and someone counters it—and it's funny. I think the audience saw themselves in those characters and liked what they saw." Indeed they did: The Cosby Show became one of the biggest hits in American television history and dominated Thursday evenings from 1984 to 1992.
In many respects The Cosby Show's upscale aura was designed to redress a long history of negative portrayals of African-Americans on television. In contrast to the families in other popular African-American comedies, the Huxtables were given a unique mix of qualities the show's creators believed would challenge common African-American stereotypes: a strong father, a nuclear family, parents who were professionals, affluence, an emphasis on education, and multiracial friends. During its tenure on the airwaves, The Cosby Show won six Emmy Awards, three Golden Globes, and 15 People's Choice Awards.
In the realm of the '80s sitcoms mom, Clair Huxtable was tops. NBC recently aired The Cosby Show: A Look Back, in which Rashad and her former TV family gathered to share memories of favorite scenes, funny moments, and the universal themes that made history.
"I never really assessed the success I've had until the recent retrospective of that show," Rashad admitted. "I felt the success didn't have to do with myself as an actress, but rather with the privilege of having been in the company of one of the greatest artists [Bill Cosby] ever and other great artists. I'm talking about the other actors; Jay Sandrich, who directed the show; the writers, Tom Werner and Marcy Carsey and Caryn Mandabach… Great people surrounded me. The impact that the work had was because it was carefully thought out. Mr. Cosby is a genius. He is a man of vision and he is intelligent in so many ways. One of those ways is that he surrounds himself with good people who do their work. And that's when I realized, 'Oh, I guess I did do a little something.'"
Back in Blue
Though she was working on a hit television show, Rashad made her way back to the stage spotlight whenever she had the chance. "[In 1988], there was a writers' strike coming up, so there was the question of were we ever going to go back to work again? Right at the end of the season I received a call to audition for Sondheim's Into the Woods and was cast as the Witch. So I was always working in theatre. I never stopped working in theatre. I never think about not doing it. It's arduous work, it's demanding work, and it's the discipline in which I was trained. It's the original discipline for the actor. That's what I love, the discipline of theatre. Most of the very great actors study, develop, and perform in theatre."
Following the end of The Cosby Show's run, Rashad continued her on-screen career in made-for-TV movies The Possession of Michael D and The Babysitter's Seduction; Polly and Polly: Comin' Home!, co-starring television daughter Keshia Knight Pulliam; Uncle Tom's Cabin, and False Witness, before once again joining television husband Bill Cosby in 1996's comedy series Cosby. When Cosby ended, in 2000, Rashad returned to the stage with Jelly's Last Jam, the Alliance Theatre of Atlanta's production of Blues for an Alabama Sky, and Medea. Most recently she was seen in New York as Zora Neale Hurston in Thulani Davis' Everybody's Baby and in Los Angeles in Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues. She also appeared as Elizabeth in The Old Settler for PBS Hollywood Presents with her real-life sister, Debbie Allen, noted Broadway and television choreographer, director, and actor.
Currently, Rashad is gearing up for the Aug. 30-Oct. 13 run of Pasadena Playhouse's Blue, by Charles Randolph-Wright, co-starring Diahann Carroll and Clifton Davis and directed by Playhouse artistic director Sheldon Epps. Blue has already had two acclaimed and popular productions, both directed by Epps, at the Arena Stage in Washington D.C., and Off-Broadway, presented by the Roundabout Theatre Company. Set in rural South Carolina, Blue spans two decades in the life of the affluent African-American Clark family, proprietors of a successful funeral home business, as seen through the eyes of eldest son Rueben, who evolves from a preteen trumpet player into an adult artist.
Rashad plays Peggy Clark, a powerful matriarch defined by dark secrets. Asked how she became involved in the production, she explained, "Charles Randolph-Wright and I were in the chorus of Dreamgirls together. We used to sit up there with our backs turned to the audience while Jimmy Earle dropped his pants. We talked about all kind of magnificent things and we formed a friendship there. And, I guess it was two or three years ago, Charles presented me with the script. He said, 'I've written this play and I would really love for you to read it. I'd like you to look at the role of Peggy.' So I read it and I enjoyed it. I enjoyed performing it last summer in New York, and I'm really looking forward to the run here."
Coming back to the role for another run is exciting for Rashad, who sees every performance onstage as an exploration. "They say you get more times to do it 'right' in theatre. There is no such thing. You get a number of times to explore the character. Figuring out a character is an exercise in the discipline of self-inquiry. It all comes from your own understanding. I find that an actor's own life informs the work that we do."
In an industry where good roles for actress over 40 are few and far between, a stunningly beautiful and age-defying Rashad, who is in her 50s, seems to have eluded this problem. In a recent interview for Lifetime, Rashad commented, "I don't feel the effect of years because age to me is learning, and the quest for understanding is more important than how many wrinkles I have or how high I can kick when I dance. What I want as I get older is to be always reaching up and blooming."
To see Rashad, onstage and off, these days is to see an actress in full bloom. BSW