Poet Vivian Ayers once told her daughter Phylicia Rashad that being an actress made her one of the “magic” people.
“I said, ‘What do you mean, Mama?’” said Rashad. “She said, ‘You create so much out of nothing.’”
And for the majority of her career, the 66-year-old Rashad was content being a “magic person.” She didn’t harbor any secret desire to follow in her younger sister Debbie Allen’s footsteps and become a director. Allen directed and co-starred with Rashad in the 2001 PBS drama “The Old Settler” and directed her on Broadway in the 2008 revival of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”
“I was having so much fun being an actress,” said Rashad, best known as everyone’s favorite mom, Clair Huxtable, from the 1984-92 NBC sitcom “The Cosby Show.” She’s also appeared on the stage, including the 2004 revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” for which she received a Tony Award for lead actress.
But then she got a call from Constanza Romero, the widow of award-winning playwright August Wilson. Romero asked Rashad to direct her husband’s drama “Gem of the Ocean” in a 2007 production at Seattle Repertory Theatre. Rashad starred in the play at the Mark Taper Forum in 2003 and earned a Tony nomination for the subsequent Broadway production.
“She said, ‘I think you could do this. I know you can do this,’” Rashad said. And Rashad received further affirmation from Kenny Leon, who directed her on Broadway in “Raisin in the Sun” and “Gem.” Leon is also an experienced Wilson interpreter, having directed the Broadway productions of Wilson’s “Radio Golf” and the 2010 revival of “Fences.”
“So I went and did it,” Rashad said. “I chose some fine actors to work with. My sensitivities for the work were well informed from the work I had done as an actor previously. Directing was an adventure — a new adventure. It is an investment in the entire production. I can truthfully say it’s like second nature.”
Since “Gem,” Rashad has blossomed into a well-respected theater director. She directed Wilson’s “Fences” at the Long Wharf in Connecticut,” “A Raisin in the Sun” at the Ebony Repertory Theatre and the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Los Angeles and a revival two years ago of Wilson’s “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” at the Taper.
Times theater critic Charles McNulty stated in his review of the Wilson drama that Rashad kept the staging of “Joe Turner” '“simple and actor-focused. ... Rashad knows that what matters most is emotional clarity, not scenic flourish.”
On a recent Friday afternoon, Rashad was relaxing in the downstairs lounge at the Taper, where she is directing the comedy “Immediate Family,” which opens at the theater May 3. Elegant and gracious, Rashad exuded an almost a Zen-like calmness considering she was amid rehearsals for the play by Paul Oakley Stovall.
(The only topic she won’t discuss is her former co-star Bill Cosby, who has been accused of sexually assaulting women over the years. After she said she was misquoted in January in an interview about her defense of Cosby, Rashad has been mum on the subject.)
“Immediate Family” allows Rashad a chance to explore comedy. The play, which she directed three years ago at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago — four of the six original actors are reprising their roles — is being described as “Modern Family’ meets “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”
Set in Chicago’s racially diverse Hyde Park neighborhood — the Obamas lived there for 20 years — “Immediate Family” revolves around an affluent African American family that reunites for the youngest sibling’s marriage. There’s an older, religious and judgmental sister, her easygoing brother who is about to get married, a biracial half-sister and the middle brother, who hasn’t told his older sister he’s gay. Added to the comedic mix is a lesbian neighbor and the gay sibling’s white Swedish boyfriend.
Stovall, a Chicago-based actor-writer, had briefly met Rashad in her dressing room when he was appearing on Broadway in “August: Osage County” and got to know her better while doing a staged reading of a musical in Jackson, Miss.
“I told her I was a budding writer,” Stovall said.
“After we worked together, he sent me two of his plays, and this was one of them,” Rashad added.
One reason she responded to the play is because “family is a good subject for theater, a good subject for a play. It is about all things that affect us as humans — self-acceptance, tolerance, love, truth.”
“I really applaud how she has jumped into a new work,” Stovall said. “What thrills me about her is her discipline. She is always prepared. She never comes in and doesn’t know what she wants to work on. She is fun and precise. She respects the word on the page more than anything else.”
Since its premiere in Chicago, Stovall has tightened the play. “There is clarity in there that was not there before,” Rashad said. “Even at the Goodman, the play zipped long. It has so much heart.”
Center Theatre Group artistic director Michael Ritchie was so impressed with Rashad while she was in rehearsals for “Joe Turner” that he started talking to her then about her next project at the Taper.
“You come to me with any idea, with any play,” Ritchie recalled. “She came back with ‘Immediate Family’ and said, ‘I really believe in this playwright and this play.’”
For Rashad, directing is about creating a vision “galvanizing all the creative energies involved to move in alignment with that vision and leaving room for those creative energies to bring that, which I have not considered, so everybody can be invested. I’m very open to discussion.”
As much as she loves acting and directing, the real joy in Rashad’s life are her grown children — William Bowles III and Condola Rashad, who has become one of Broadway’s best young actresses, earning Tony nominations for “Stick Fly” and “A Trip to Bountiful.” Condola’s father is Ahmad Rashad, the former pro football player and sportscaster who was married to the actress from 1985 to 2001.
“What I am so proud of is the way she works,” said Rashad, who took her daughter to the “Cosby” set and theater rehearsals. “It’s all about the work. She grew up watching the work. She saw what the work entailed. She loved it.”
Despite her success as a theater director, Rashad hasn’t abandoned acting. She recently shot “For Justice,” a CBS drama pilot directed by “Selma’s” Ava DuVernay, in which she plays an assistant attorney general working in the civil rights division of the Justice Department.
During the filming, DuVernay asked her if she wanted to direct for TV or film.
“It’s been suggested to me on a few occasions by a few people ‘You should be doing this,’” Rashad said. “I say, ‘OK.’ And then they said, ‘No, really, you should direct in film and television as well.’ I say, ‘OK.’ And then I go to whatever it is I’m doing next.”