‘There are so many fences that keep people in and keep people out,” says Phylicia Rashad, the well-known and award-winning actress and the director of playwright August Wilson’s “Fences,” a co-production between Princeton’s McCarter Theater and the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven, Connecticut. The Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning play opens at McCarter Theater on Friday, January 17, and continues to Sunday, February 9.
As Rashad and I examined the significance of the play’s title, she says that she had listened with interest as an audience at an after-play discussion talked about the imagery of fences. “It’s incredible to see how people are responding to the play, especially their interest in fences, where they were and what they did: the fences of prison, the fences in the yard, the fences of segregation, the fences of illiteracy — so many fences.”
“Fences” was the second of Wilson’s plays to open on Broadway (in 1987) though the setting is at a midpoint of Wilson’s 10-play cycle chronicling the African-American experience of the 20th century. Set in the mid 1950s, it is the time between the Korean and Vietnam wars before the surge of the civil rights movement. Taking place in Pittsburgh, as are all but one of the plays in the cycle, it centers on the family of Troy Maxton, a garbage man who had been a star ball player in the Negro League but was “fenced out” of major league baseball play. By the time African-Americans were being accepted into the major leagues he was too old. His son is also an athlete who sees the possibility of a sports career that was denied his father. It was a time of transition in a number of ways.
This is also a time of transition in the career of Rashad. She has been a dancer, singer, television and stage actress, teacher, “activist,” and now a director. She remembers when she — using her birth name of Phylicia Ayers Allen — was playing a Munchkin in the original 1975 Broadway production of “The Wiz” that the show’s director, Geoffrey Holder, said, “Every dancer should think in terms of becoming a choreographer. And every actor should think in terms of becoming a director. And every choreographer should think in terms of becoming a director. And every director should think in terms of becoming a producer.” She laughed and continued noting that there is nothing like words of wisdom from someone who is very accomplished. “His words were a seed.”
Thirty years later, when she was playing the role of Aunt Ester in the 2005 McCarter Theater production of Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean” (she originated the role for the 2004 Broadway production and received a Tony nomination and Drama Desk Award), she got a call from Seattle Repertory Theater asking her to come out and direct the play for them. Her response was, “I’ve never directed anything before.” Their response was, “’But that doesn’t mean that you can’t.’ That’s how it began,” she explains. Her trip to Seattle marked the beginning of a new part of her career.
She has since directed several workshops and productions, including a production last spring of Wilson’s “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” for the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. Her record of television, film, and stage credits is too long to even consider listing here. However, she is still best known as Clair Huxtable in the NBC’s television series “The Cosby Show.” She has won a number of awards including the Tony Award for Best Leading Actress in a Play in 2004 for “Raisin in the Sun,” making history by being the first African-American actress to win this award for a dramatic leading role.
Rashad — who was born in Houston, Texas, lived in Mexico for two years (she is fluent in Spanish), and graduated from Howard University — also has an active and visible off-stage life. She has been active in the civil rights movement and worked for a number of charities including the Diabetes Association African-American Program and the Educational Teachers’ Association. Recently she appeared as part of the South Carolina Democratic Party’s 2013 College Tour encouraging young people to get involved politically. So it isn’t surprising that, when asked which of the social issues she thought were most important, she says “education.” She says, “Without an educational system that our country warrants and that our citizens merit our future is in jeopardy. It seems to me that well-intentioned people can be so focused on their individual ideas and experience that doesn’t consider the whole.”
Since she has made a mark in so many areas of theater, I suggested that next for her should be playwriting. To which she laughed and replied “You sound like my mother.” I choose to take that as quite a compliment because her mother, Vivian Ayers Allen, was renowned as a Pulitzer-prize-nominated artist, poet, playwright, scholar, and publisher. In fact, hers is quite a family. Rashad’s sister is actress/dancer Debbie Allen; her brother, jazz musician Tex Allen. Incidentally Rashad’s father, Andrew Arthur Allen, was a dentist who separated from Rashad’s mother in 1957 when the future actress was nine years old. For some time Rashad and her sister maintained a production company called D.A.D (Daughters of Doctor Allen).
The talent continues into another generation. Rashad’s daughter, Condola Rashad, from her former marriage to Minnesota Viking wide receiver and television producer Ahmad Rashad (other ex-husbands include dentist William Lancelot Bowles and Village People cop and “YMCA” songwriter Victor Willis) has an auspicious beginning to a career in the theater. She won the 2009 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Featured Actress in a Play for her performance in the off-Broadway production of “Ruined,” the Pulitzer Prize play by Lynn Nottage. Just in 2013, she performed on Broadway in “The Trip to Bountiful” with Cecily Tyson and as Juliet in the recent “Romeo and Juliet” opposite Orlando Bloom.
Rashad says that when the young Condola visited a theater a woman happened to ask the girl what she wanted to be when she grew up. “Condola said, ‘I want to be a magic lady.’ The woman said ‘Oh, you mean a magician.’ I’m told Condola pointed to me on the stage and said ‘No. A magic lady like my mother.’”
Next up for the aptly called “magic lady” will be the direction of a La Jolla Playhouse workshop of “Blueprint to Freedom: An Ode to Bayard Rustin.” It is a play that brings together her off and on stage interests. “(Rustin) was the architect in the civil rights movement who conceived and executed the plan for the march on Washington. His skills inform social movements to this day,” she says of another American — like Wilson — who saw beyond the fences.
Fences, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. Tuesdays (except January 28) through Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 and 7:30 p.m., through Sunday, February 9. $20 to $87.50. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.