Talking with actress Phylicia Rashad, I note that her serenity is unflappable. She speaks of spiritual matters as easily as she would give me a recipe for a pot roast.
"This is the most spiritual of August’s plays," she says of "Gem of the Ocean," the next-to last of the 10-play canon by August Wilson, dramas that chronicle the African American experience during each decade of the 20th century. Each reflects the effects of slavery on succeeding generations of black Americans.
"Gem of the Ocean," which is in previews at McCarter Theater and opens Friday, October 14, is the first play in the timeline, set in 1904 in Pittsburgh’s impoverished but vibrant Hill District, where all but one of Wilson’s plays are set. The message of "Gem of the Ocean," says Rashad, "is the importance of human life, not just one group of people, but all people." This message of universality is all the more poignant in light of the very recent death of Wilson.
When I spoke with Rashad by phone, just two weeks before Wilson’sdeath on October 2 from terminal liver cancer, she wanted to "leave room for a miracle," and would not summarize Wilson’s career. "I won’t bury people before they go." However she did cite at length lines from the play that would indicate that Wilson was prepared for the end of his life. The character of Solly in "Gem" quotes from the W.C. Bryant poem "Thanatopsis": "So live, that when thy summons comes to join the innumerable caravan which moves to that mysterious realm…death, Thou go not like the quarry slave at night…But sustained and soothed by an unfaltering trust, Approach thy grave like one that wraps the drapery of his cough about him, and lies down to pleasant dreams."
In the McCarter production, the New Jersey premiere, Rashad reprises her role of Aunt Ester. This is her fourth time embodying this role, and each time she has returned to Aunt Ester, she says, "it is a wonderful re-discovery and discovery. The experience is one of deepening of understanding and expression that happens with time. Theater takes a lot more time than we give it. This is an opportunity to do the play, walk away, and come back and do it again. There is a natural ripening of things, not planned, they just happen. You have to move more deeply into the text to find more about the truth in whatyou’re doing." Aunt Ester has been described as an embodiment of the continuity of spiritual and moral values that Wilson felt was crucial to the black experience, uniting the descendants of slaves to their African ancestors.
The play begins on the eve of Aunt Ester’s 285th birthday when a young man in spiritual turmoil comes to her home searching for direction. She sets him on a mystical journey. Says Rashad: "Aunt Ester is holding memories of a race of people in an exalted state. Just by her being, she does a lot for people. And when she can awaken people to this state of grace within themselves, that’s a good thing, that’s a great day."
The character of Aunt Ester had been mentioned in two other Wilson plays, but had never come on stage. However, Wilson told Rashad that one day he just heard Aunt Ester speaking, and he began to write what he was hearing. To become this character, Rashad says, "As I am listening to her speak through me, I just give myself to it. I can’t explain it beyond that. It’s difficult to explain spirit except to say that it is. I think the affinity I feel for this character is that she expresses a belief epiphany in me."
For most of us, Rashad is frozen in time as the Cosby Show’s Clare Huxtable, an elegant career woman/mother. It may be hard to imagine her as this ancient (come on, 285 years old!) mother of her community through the ages. The transformation will not be quite so hard for those who saw her Tony-award-winning performance as the mother in the 2004 Broadway revival of Lorraine Hansbury’s "Raisin in the Sun." Rashad was the first African-American woman to win a Tony for a leading role in a non-musical. She was nominated again the following year for her performance as Aunt Ester.
"In my career I do feel very fortunate that I have been able to perform in a number of works that appeal to universal humanity." She has heard from people from different cultures, backgrounds, age ranges, and economic levels who tell her how much her work has resonated with them. "In the Cosby Show, people all over the world see themselves in this family. This is what happens when you present a work that’s really human."
Her Broadway performances date back to 1975 when, under the name Phylicia Ayers-Allen, she was a munchkin in "The Wiz." Still using that name, she appeared in "Dreamgirls." After her successful stint on television – in addition to "The Cosby Show" from 1984 to 1991, she also appeared on several soap operas including "One Life to Live" and "Santa Barbara" – she returned to Broadway as a replacement in the original productions of "Into the Woods" (in the role of the witch, originated by Bernadette Peters) and "Jelly’s Last Jam" (as the wife, originated by Tonya Pinkins.)
She has also appeared in many regional theaters including the Huntington in Boston, Arena Stage in Washington, the Alliance in Atlanta, Hartford Stage in Connecticut, the Mark Taper Form in Los Angeles, and Pasadena Playhouse.
In the spring of 2001, she also appeared as the ultimate controlling mother in the Roundabout Theater production of "Blue" by Charles Randolph Wright, his autobiographical play set in a little town in South Carolina, a community only a few miles from the town where Rashad’s mother grew up.
Rashad told me that as a young girl, she lived in a "very special community" in Houston, Texas. Considering that her siblings are actress/dancer/choreographer/producer Debbie Allen and jazz musician Tex Allen, who has been prominent in the New York music scene for over 25 years, it most certainly must have been a "special" place to grow up. (There is also a younger brother, Hugh, who is a real estate banker in North Carolina.)
Their father was a dentist who is reputed to have been a great dancer, and their mother is the remarkable Vivian Ayers Allen, an accomplished poet, ethnographer, and linguist, who was the first Texan to be nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in poetry. She lives in New York and continues as curator of the Adept New American Museum, devoted to the culture of the Southwest. This is an extension of the New American Folk Center, which she founded in Houston.
In Rashad’s childhood in Texas, many of her relatives and relative’s friends were lawyers, doctors, concert pianists, professional violinists, and such, so the world of Claire Huxtable, the lawyer married to a doctor scenario wasn’t foreign territory for her. "Our mother always encouraged us to move toward full exploration and development," says Rashad, who graduated magna cum laude from Howard University with a degree in fine arts.
Making a difference in the world has prompted her to a number of altruistic projects. A project close to her heart is the restoration of Brainerd Academy in Chester, South Carolina. This was a school opened after the Civil War to serve newly liberated slaves in the neighboring counties, in operation from 1866 to 1939. Her mother was a member of its last graduation class. In 1997, Rashad saved it from demolition and purchased it, giving control to her mother. Both she and her sister have been active in supporting the Brainerd Heritage Fund to remember the school’s historical significance and to use its legacy to build for the future.
Rashad has two children, a son in his early 30s by her first husband, a dentist, and a daughter in her late teens who also wants to be a performer. Her father is athlete and sports announcer Ahmad Rashad. That marriage ended in divorce, as did a second marriage to Victor Willis, the lead singer for the Village People.
Rashad is an activist with a number of charities including the Diabetes Association African-American Program and the Educational Teachers’ Association. She is an active member of the Siddha Yoga group, espousing their principles of self-knowledge through meditation to realize the presence of divinity in all creation. These attributes seem to permeate her way of life, her work, and her words.
In an interview with reporter Adrienne Onofri for Broadwayworld.com, Rashad talked of the connection between spirit and theater: "Theater is an art form that has its origins in worship – worship of creation, worship of humanity, worship of the creator in humanity. What theater did was pose some questions to human beings about themselves – how they live, how they think, what is their relationship to right and wrong, what is their duty as human beings, what is their relationship to each other, what is their relationship to one’s own self."
She doesn’t want to set up particular goals for herself because, as she says, "life presents itself as it does." She does want to continue in her work as an actress but also expresses her hope for the world. "I would like to see people understand the common thread that links humanity. All of us need to be peacemakers. We must realize that we’re much more alike than we could ever be different. It’s always been difficult in every time in history." Together on the phone, she and I remember the inspirational song, "Let There Be Peace on Earth and Let It Begin with Me."
I had approached this interview still boiling with anger from an experience the night before. After I hung up from our conversation, I marveled to myself as I discovered that all that anger had just melted away. Nothing had been mentioned about it. But something in Rashad’s spirit had communicated and healed.
Gem of the Ocean, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place. August Wilson’s play, directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson. Previews Wednesday and Thursday, October 12 and 13, opening night Friday, October 14. Runs through Sunday, October 30. $30 to $40. 609-258-2787.