You can't help but feel the maternal touch of
She exudes warmth, calm and centeredness that brings to mind ideal qualities of a mom. Her voice is honeyed and clear, her answers are specific and instructional, and when she says, "Oh, child," it's like getting a hug.
It's a role she knows well.
In the '80s, Rashad was the wise, witty and loving mother, wife and professional woman Clair Huxtable in the hit television series "The Cosby Show," which ran eight years.
She also received a
In 2005 Rashad won a Tony Award for playing Lena, the mother determined to see a better life for her family in the Broadway revival of the 1959 play "A Raisin in the Sun" — and later in a 2008 television production.
Along the way, she's played some mean mothers, from Medea to the matriarch in "The House of Bernarda Alba" to to the razor-tongued druggie mom in "August: Osage Country."
But "Raisin in the Sun" — which centers on a black family in 1950s Southside Chicago and its dream of a escaping the city for the suburbs — holds a special place in her heart because the Lorraine Hansberry play has been an important part of her life. She's played several of the
"When I was in elementary school [in Texas] I remember seeing pictures from the original production in Ebony and Jet Magazine, Life and Look magazines, too," she says during a recent break in rehearsals in New York. "And then as a theater student at
When Rashad was a young actress performing in the tour of "To Be Young, Gifted and Black," a compilation of Hasberry's works, she was asked to consider the role of Beneatha in the play for the 1973 Broadway musical 'Raisin.' "I said I'd love to do it but I was great with child. But I said I have a sister [actress-dancer-choreographer
"Then years later, I performed in the 25th anniversary production, directed by Hansberry's cousin, [that also included] my son, Bill, who was 10 years old at the time, playing Travis. That was at the time I was just starting on 'The Cosby Show.' "
Eight years ago director Kenny Leon called Rashad and asked her to play the determined mother Lena in a revival he was planning for Broadway, one that also starred Sean Puffy Combs (P. Diddy) and Audra McDonald.
The offer came on the heels of the world premiere of "Gem of the Ocean" in Los Angeles — but before it would eventually make it to Broadway.
"That production made me sensitive to history, and to time," she says of the Wilson play..
When she began rehearsals for the revival of "Raisin in the Sun," she says she found that the 1959 play says Lena's age is 55, which would make her birth in 1904, the year "Gem of the Ocean" is set.
"Then I started to make connections I had never made before," she says. "Connections to my own grandparents and great grandparents and my Aunt Denny who lived on a farm. I began to understand Lena, not as a piece of furniture with a wig on or some 'matriarch' thing — which is so boring and that didn't make sense to me, But I began to understand the human being and her personal history, why that little plant [in the story of the play] meant so much to her. I knew she was a woman who could reach back and touch slavery, that she grew up listening to those old people who came out of bondage. She would also have a clear idea about what was happening in the country [during the first half of the 20th Century] in terms of race relations. I understood it as if it were my own life. I understood it!"
Rashad said people, many of whom saw the original, brought their children and grandchildren to the revival "knowing how important a play it was."
The playhad its world-premiere Jan. 21, 1959 at the
Lonnie Elder, Douglas Turner, Ed Hall,
The influence of the play resonated for a contemporary playwright. Long Wharf Theare in New Haven will produce in the spring the
For Rashad, 64, directing the play for the first time came in a round-about way. In 2010 she had an offer to recreate her Broadway role in a production at the Ebony Repertory Theatre in Los Angeles. She declined but when the show's director and the theater's artistic director Israel Hicks unexpectedly died, Rashad stepped in to stage the show, having recently directed a production of "Gem of the Ocean" at Seattle Repertory Theatre.
She remembered seeing a production of Wilson's "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" that Hicks directed at Juilliard and "it was one of the most magnificent shows" she had every seen. When she asked Hicks how he got the graduate students to connect so powerfully to the material, he told her, "We just look for a little truth, you know."
That, she decided, would be her approach to directing and her lens into the play.
Last year, Mark Lamos, artistic director of the Westport Playhouse, asked Rashad to stage the play once more for the theater. Rashad, who worked with Lamos when he was artistic director at
She directed Paul Oakley's "Immediate Family" at the
In the spring Phylicia Rashad will be directing "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" for the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles
Rashad joins two other esteemed actresses who are staging significant works in Connecticut this fall:
Is directing a new career for her?
"Oh, child, I don't know," she says laughing. "I'm just happy that it's happening."
A RAISIN IN THE SUN plays through Nov. 3 at Westport Country Playhouse, 25 Powers Court in Westport. Performances are Tuesdays at 8 p.m.; Wednesdays at 2 and 8 p.m.; Thursday and Fridays at 8 p.m.; Saturdays at 3 and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. Tickets are $30 to $70. With a valid school ID, students pay $15 by calling the box office or at the box office between noon and 6 p.m. Educators are eligible for a 50 percent discount. Information: 203-227-4177 and http://www.westportplayhouse.org.
"Sunday Symposiums include: "A Conversation with Phylicia Rashad," on Oct. 14, after the 3 p.m. performance; "Commitment amid Complexity: Lorraine Hansberry's Drama and Worldview," on Oct. 21, after the 3 p.m. performance, and will feature Steven R. Carter, author of "Hansberry's Drama," and Tracy Heather Strain, founder of the Lorraine Hansberry Documentary Project; "Post-Show Conversation: A Day for Community," on Oct. 28, after a specially discounted 3 p.m. performance, will offer a discussion centered on the theme of community as reflected in the play,
A free developmental workshop for educators,"Teaching Matters of Segregation and Race: Finding a Context for 'A Raisin in the Sun'," will be held on Monday, Oct. 15, 3:30 to 7:30 p.m., in The Lucille Lortel White Barn Center at the Playhouse; The film, "To Be Young, Gifted and Black," will be screened free on Monday, Oct. 29, 7 p.m., in the Lucille Lortel White Barn Center at the Playhouse. The 1972 film stars