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What You Can’t See

In a year in which an emotionally overwrought Halle Berry stood tearfully in front of the Oscar night audience and many Americans joined in a chorus of self-congratulatory hosannas, the media made much of what they hailed as progress for African American actors. Yet this level of achievement isn’t as new as it may seem.

For decades, individuals have been breaking barriers and staking out similar territory, if not that precise statuette. The evidence that prejudice persists lies as much in how few of these individuals there have been, as in the fact that their accomplishments are largely forgotten the moment the cameras turn away.

As far back as the ‘50s and as recently as the ‘90s, there have been and continue to be performers like Diahann Carroll and Phylicia Rashad. As multitalented actress-singers with decades of credits in theater, film and television, their triumphs are incontestable. But the fact that these two African Americans have achieved what they have in an industry still marred by racism makes their careers all the more impressive.

Carroll and Rashad are now appearing together for the first time in Charles Randolph-Wright’s “Blue,” opening next Sunday at the Pasadena Playhouse. The lighthearted drama about an upper-middle-class family that owns a funeral home in a small South Carolina town features music by Nona Hendryx and is being staged by playhouse artistic director Sheldon Epps.

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Carroll made her Broadway and film debuts in the mid-'50s, and in 1968, when her show “Julia” premiered, she became one of the first African American female stars of a television series. In addition to her 1962 Tony award for “No Strings,” best actress Golden Globe award in 1968 for “Julia” and Emmy and Grammy nominations, as well as numerous other tributes, she was nominated for a best actress Oscar in 1974--long before Berry’s much ballyhooed nod.

Rashad, a veteran of many Broadway productions, is best known for her pivotal role as Bill Cosby’s wife on the landmark television series “The Cosby Show,” and later on the series “Cosby.”

Would Carroll and Rashad have had even greater opportunities if they’d been white? “Without a doubt,” Epps says. “And I would also add CCH Pounder. These extraordinary actresses have had great careers, but frankly, not the kind of careers they deserve, and not the kind they would have had if they hadn’t been African American actresses.

“These actresses have won Tony awards and done films and major television shows,” Epps continues. “But if you take any single one of those things that either one of those women did and thought of that as a launching pad, what would that launching pad have resulted in if they’d been white? And as much as they’ve done, I guarantee you that either one of those women would’ve had 10 times the opportunities that they’ve had if they’d been white.

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“Any white actress who’d been on [one of] the most successful series in the history of television would constantly be on a series now. Where is Phylicia’s series? Why haven’t they developed a series just for her?”

Nor are actors the only ones who continue to run into invisible barriers. “It’s also something that Charles Randolph-Wright and I talk about, because we both have had really wonderful careers,” says Epps, playhouse artistic director since 1997. He conceived and directed the musicals “Blues in the Night” and “Play On!” The former was nominated for a best musical Tony and the latter received three Tony nominations and was filmed for PBS’ “Great Performances.”

“People look at you and they think, ‘Well they’ve done such extraordinary things,’ ” Epps continues. “But I think that neither Charles nor I have had some of the opportunities that we would have had if we hadn’t been black director-writers.”

Carroll and Rashad sit on white patio furniture in a tiny courtyard behind the Madilyn Clark studios in North Hollywood, amid aging latticework and scrappy bougainvillea. Outshining their surroundings like visiting royalty, they lend an aura of elegance to the otherwise modest location, where they are rehearsing “Blue.”

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Indeed, to engage in conversation with these two great American actresses is to glimpse the difference between true stardom and the mere celebrity that often passes for it. It isn’t so much their ageless beauty that strikes you, though that is stunning, but the combination of charm, intelligence and integrity that so clearly goes with it.

As one would expect with artists of this stature, they know the importance of choosing their projects carefully. “This is a well-written play with many layers and textures,” says Rashad, who starred in two previous productions of “Blue” directed by Epps, the 2000 premiere at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., and last spring’s staging at the Roundabout Theatre Company in New York. “It’s subtle and that’s the kind of work I like to do.”

Both Rashad and Carroll have returned to the stage throughout their careers. “I have to go back to the well,” says Carroll, speaking on the day after returning from taping an episode of the Showtime series “Soul Food.” “The work that I do requires theater. As long as I’m not doing the stairs in ‘Sunset Boulevard'--739 steps each performance!” she adds, referring to her stint in the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, as the two actresses share one of many laughs, tinged with recognition and show biz bonhomie.

“Blue” is a memory play spanning two decades and centered in the home of the Clark family, which has run a funeral parlor for generations. Mother Peggy (Rashad) is a stylish woman keenly out of place in her provincial surroundings, and her sons, husband, mother-in-law (Carroll) and others do their best to negotiate her eccentricities. Meanwhile, exerting a powerful influence on their lives is the magnetic jazz singer Blue Williams (Michael McElroy).

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“This is a wonderful, dysfunctional comedic family and friends,” Carroll says. “I’m drawn to things that are dysfunctional because they’re usually honest.”

Writing in the New York Times, Bruce Weber called “Blue” “an amiable featherweight of a play,” describing the fictional Clarks, who are loosely inspired by playwright Randolph-Wright’s relatives, as “a clan built to prime-time specifications.”

In dramaturgical terms, the play is, indeed, fairly conventional. What makes it innovative is its use of music--the songs figure prominently, and the title character functions as a kind of Greek chorus--and its milieu.

Both Epps and his actresses hail Randolph-Wright’s accomplishment in bringing upper-middle-class African American life to the stage. “He is writing about an experience and a facet of American society that we don’t see, and he is writing about it in a firsthand account,” Rashad says.

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Coincidentally, it is a background that playwright and director--and to some extent, even the two actresses--share. Both Randolph-Wright and Epps come from families that include Southern funeral home proprietors. Rashad’s mother grew up 15 miles from Randolph-Wright’s hometown in South Carolina, and Carroll has strong family ties in the South.

But it is not a world that is widely known to white America. “The fact that this play deals with this very specific world of the upper-middle-class or even upper-class black aristocracy in the South was something that I knew about because of my family, but something that I don’t think I’ve seen on a stage before, or for that matter, in movies or television,” Epps says.

“Now, some people say it’s unbelievable,” he continues. “I actually remember, after the play opened in New York and I was doing an interview and somebody challenged me and said, ‘Well, it kind of lacks believability, doesn’t it, that this Southern black family would know all those things?’ I remember saying to the interviewer, ‘Well, just because you haven’t had lunch with me, doesn’t mean that I don’t exist.’ ”

The Clarks are established in their community. “It is stated that previous generations did exceedingly well,” Rashad says. “This is a fact, and this is what we don’t see.”

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“This is why some people have difficulty accepting these characters; they didn’t just get here,” Carroll adds. “Grandma is a complete representative of the fact that she is a product of something that allowed her to be different in her girlhood.”

The something that allowed Grandma to be different was being brought up to believe in her right to success. But just as such beliefs do not take hold overnight, it can also take generations for people to distance themselves from racism.

This point was recently driven home for Carroll. “I was talking to two young black actors, male and female, about an incident when someone had been insulted by someone who was white,” she says. “And in the middle of this discussion, I realized that I was very upset. And the two young people were looking at me, and I realized it did not touch them the way it touched me. It was the same as saying, ‘Well, you know, she takes heroin, what am I going to do?’ ”

For Carroll, the past is ever-present. “I come from things they’ve never seen, heard, done, having to do with racism,” she explains. “They don’t even have a way to relate to some of the things. They had never experienced racism in the way that I have experienced it. When they’re in the presence of that, they consider it a kind of stupidity and they move on.”

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That, in a way, is what the Clarks have done. “This family has moved into that area, more so,” Carroll says, drawing parallels between the young actors’ attitude and the Clark family’s outlook. “They have moved on.”

But it is not what the entertainment industry has done. Witness the celebration over Berry and Denzel Washington’s Oscars.

For Carroll, this year’s Oscar celebrations were almost anti-climactic. “It’s very, very nice that Halle wins, it’s lovely,” she says. “Did it have the meaning that it would have had, had I won it when I was 30? It would have had a different meaning. It doesn’t have that meaning today. It’s terrible, but that says it: It’s very nice.

“I understand what it means to her to be able to stand there and say, ‘Finally.’ But that’s all it is.”

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Says Epps, “Is Halle Berry’s Oscar going to produce a lot more work for black actresses? I think Halle Berry’s Oscar is going to produce a lot more work for Halle Berry. She will be offered more scripts. She won’t be offered the same number of scripts that a white actress who won the Oscar last year would’ve been offered.”

Nor is the situation better in theater. “Tony awards usually produce, for actresses not of color, a tremendous number of opportunities,” Epps says. “Suddenly they have a development deal, and they have a television series, and they have this and they have that. Historically speaking, that has not been true with women of color who have won the Tony.”

So it goes for directors of color as well. “I read a lot lately about Sam Mendes,” says Epps, who in addition to extensive theater credits has directed a great deal of episodic television in the past six years. “Here’s a director who came from the theater and suddenly, like many young white directors from the theater who’ve had some success, he’s skyrocketed as a movie director. That does not usually happen with black directors. Charles is a good example. I’m a good example. [Playwright-director] Marion McClinton is a good example. So is [Public Theater artistic director] George Wolfe. Any one of us who’ve done what we’ve done and had the number of high-profile successes that we’ve had would be getting chased by some studio by now, like [La Jolla Playhouse artistic director] Des McAnuff or [Broadway director] Scott Elliott.”

Television is only very slightly better. “I’m really fortunate and the range of work that I’ve done in the theater has helped to result in the range of opportunities that I’ve had in television,” Epps says. “Yes, I’ve gotten to direct ‘Frasier,’ and ‘Friends,’ and this year I’m going to direct ‘Everybody Loves Raymond.’ But I am the black director of those shows.

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“I’m grateful for the opportunity and I’m grateful to have kicked that door open, but I wish there was somebody else in the room with me.”

Talk to those who have not merely survived but excelled, and the themes that often resound are ones of responsibility and integrity. As much as possible, it’s essential to try to take charge of one’s creative destiny.

“We have to, and we do gratefully, keep generating our own work,” Epps says. “One of the reasons I took this job as artistic director of a theater--and I dare say it’s one of the reasons that George Wolfe took his job--is that I can say this is a project that I want to do and now I have a place to do it.”

“Blue” is a good case in point--and a labor of love for Epps and his actresses. They see it as a work that is both extremely specific yet broadly appealing.

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“There are people who have seen this play, in Washington and New York, from European countries, and they have come backstage to say, ‘That was my mother,’ ” Rashad says. “There was a Jewish lady who came backstage once, a middle-aged woman, and she said, ‘Oh, I saw myself in that character. I’m going to tone down just a little.’ ”

“Because this is what art is, it’s a mirror,” Rashad says. “People are much more alike than we could ever be different. And when you present the human experience in a light of universality, this is what happens, people accept it as the truth. That’s why we’re artists.”

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“Blue,” Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. Opens next Sunday. Regular schedule: Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 5 and 9 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m. (next Sunday, 5 p.m. only). $40-$60. Ends Oct. 13. (626) 356-PLAY.

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Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar.


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