Whether it's as Clair Huxtable on "The Cosby Show" or Gilda in "For Colored Girls," Phylicia Rashad has built her career on playing strong and memorable women. In the new Halle Berry film "Frankie & Alice," based on a true story of a go-go dancer who suffers from dissociative identity disorder, Rashad continues that tradition and tackles the role of Edna Murdoch, Berry's on-screen mother. Rashad says she didn't think twice about accepting the role because it's a "fine, very well made film."
Rashad, a native of Houston, Texas, is also honing her talents behind the scenes. On March 23, the Ebony Repertory Theatre in Los Angeles will present Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun," directed by Rashad. She spoke with ESSENCE.com about "Frankie & Alice" and reprising "A Raising in the Sun."
DUSTIN FITZHARRIS: Tell us about the character you play in “Frankie & Alice,” Edna Murdoch.
PHYLICIA RASHAD: Poor Mrs. Murdoch. It was an interesting character to play because you could approach the character in a number of ways. I kind of like the approach the director was offering to me, and that was one in which the lines were not clearly defined. You’re not clearly defined on exactly what she did or why she did it (laughs), but you know that it was done!
FITZHARRIS: Was that ambiguity a challenge?
RASHAD: The key was not to become overt in any way. How do you do that? So, this character in the script never talks about what has happened with her daughter (Frankie). I thought, “If she doesn’t talk about it, then I won’t think about it!” One thing was clear; she loved her daughter. There wasn’t a lot in the script to give background to who this woman was or is. As the story is written it’s about the character Frankie. So, you see this cast of characters interacting, but there’s not much about who they are. No real clues. Halle and I talked about it. I made a few decisions. But in terms of the woman herself, what was she really afraid of? Because she’s really afraid of something.
FITZHARRIS: You seem to always look for something deeper within a character than just what’s written in the script. How did you come to relate and understand Lena Younger, the character you played in “A Raisin in the Sun?”
RASHAD: The character of Lena Younger was informed by August Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean.” That takes place in 1904. “A Raisin in the Sun” we were saying takes place in 1959. Lena Younger was 55 years old. So one day in rehearsal I was doing math. I said to Kenny (Leon, the director), “She is 55 years old?” And he said, “Yes.” And I said, “It’s 1959?” And he said, “Yes.” So, that would mean that she was born in 1904.
FITZHARRIS: How did that help?
RASHAD: Well, that gave a different context, you see. All of a sudden I understood her. I understood her in a context of her time. Having portrayed Aunt Esther (in “Gem of the Ocean”) it took me to a place in time where people were coming through those centuries of bondage. In “Gem of the Ocean” there is one generation who has come through that period of bondage. Another generation born immediately after and the burning question throughout the play is: What does it mean to be free?
FITZHARRIS: Now you’re directing “A Raisin in the Sun” for the Ebony Repertory Theatre. What do you think is the most important part of directing?
RASHAD: Galvanizing creative energies to move in an alignment with a vision.
FITZHARRIS: Did you get any directing advice from your sister, Debbie Allen, who has directed a variety of projects?
RASHAD: No. (laughs) This is the second time I’m directing. The first time was “Gem of the Ocean” at the Seattle Repertory Theatre. It’s interesting to me that I’m being asked to direct these plays in which I performed.
FITZHARRIS: Is it difficult to give direction when you’re so close to the role?
RASHAD: No. No. It isn’t difficult for me because as with “Gem of the Ocean,” there is an actress whose skill levels are just above and beyond.
FITZHARRIS: Who is playing Lena Younger in “A Raisin in the Sun” in Los Angeles?
RASHAD: L. Scott Caldwell. Um-Hum. Her skill sets are amazing. She embodies qualities that are inherent in this character.
FITZHARRIS: You once said, “The only reason to do a play that’s been done before is to find something new in it.” What can we expect from this production?
RASHAD: Moving deeper into the work. It is an American classic. It’s really amazing to me how much we enjoy this play. You never think of things that come along in your lifetime as a young person as becoming a period piece one day. (laughs). Am I period piece too?
FITZHARRIS: When you won your Tony Award you said, “Often I’ve wondered what it takes for this happen. Now I know it was effort and grace.” What did you mean by that?
RASHAD: Effort and Grace. Sometimes you know … (long pause) it does take effort and grace. You must put forth constant effort to refine yourself in whatever you do. We have to do that. All of us.
FITZHARRIS: In an essay you wrote for Oprah Winfrey’s website on a letter to your younger self you wrote: "I would tell [myself] not to be so preoccupied with looking for approval from other people," she says. "You're never going to be anybody other than who you are, and who you are is greater than [you] imagine. The way that we think creates our reality — it's very powerful. I would say to a young girl who's feeling insecure about her looks, 'Stop!' Who you are is not the way you look — who you are is who you are on the inside. There's not a mirror in the world that can show you that. It is beautiful; it is amazing; it is awesome."
FITZHARRIS: How did you learn that? It takes years.
RASAHD: It doesn’t always take so many years. Some people come to it sooner than later. It’s an individual journey with each life. For me, seeds are planted early on in life, and they are planted by parents, by family members, by members of one’s community, and teachers in the classrooms. I had the good fortune to grow up in a time and place where I felt as if I belonged to everybody. It was not a little, tiny village. I felt myself as part of nature. Even as I was growing in a modern city (Houston), I still felt myself as a part of nature. There was wonder in that as a child. There was wonder in every thunderstorm. Wonder at the smell of freshly cut grass. Wonder at the vastness of the sky. Wonder at the rising of the moon. Wonder at the setting of the sun. Wonder in walking down the street and feeling as if the sun followed me wherever I went.
FITZHARRIS: You’re making me tear up. What a gift to be that centered.
RASHAD: I’m so grateful for that because coming into adult years, there was another turn. That turn goes into relationships with people that don’t support that wonder — that don’t encourage that wonder. Things that you see on a magazine cover, depending on where you are and how you are, can make you feel like you’re less than you are — like you need to be other than who you are to be of worth.
FITZHARRIS: Especially nowadays where media is all around.
RASHAD: It’s so silly. The test is not whether those things are there or not; the test is how connected are you? How established are you in that wonder you felt as a child? I was very fortunate to come back to that wonder after times that were very trying and not so great. I began the practice of meditation as a daily discipline. It’s the greatest gift in my life — my children and this practice of daily meditation.
FITZHARRIS: You have played so many different types of mothers throughout your career, but what kind of mother are you?
RASHAD: Oh, you’d have to ask my children about that! Sometimes I wonder if I was any good at all! They assure me that I am.
FITZHARRIS: Your daughter Condola, 24, is now in showbusiness., but she came to you at a young age and said she wanted to be an actress.
RASHAD: At age 3. She was sitting at a piano and she said, “Mommy, I need a dance teacher, a piano teacher, and a reading teacher. Can you get me those things?”
FITZHARRIS: And what did you think?
RASHAD: I marveled because she was asking for instruction. I liked that very much. So, she had a piano teacher. She learned to read. She was reading at four and a half. She was at Alvin Ailey for a couple of years. She studied at the Dance Theater of Harlem for a couple of years. Then she’d go out to California and study at Debbie’s academy. (Debbie Allen Dance Academy) She grew up watching me — not just on stage, but watching the process and preparation.
FITZHARRIS: How do you think watching you influenced her?
RASHAD: I’m told that when she was 8 years old, I was on stage performing and she was sitting in the audience and this lady looked at her and said, “Oh, you’re a lovely little girl; what do you want to be when you grow up?” She said, “I want to be a magic lady.” The lady smiled at her and said, “You mean a magician?” She said, “No. I mean a magic lady.” Then pointed at me and said, “Like my mother.”
FITZHARRIS: Interesting. Why did she say magic lady, though?
RASHAD: I was telling my mother and she said, “Well that’s what actors are. You create the most wonderful things from hardly anything at all.”
FITZHARRIS: In 1970 you graduated from college and came to New York. You were staying at the YMCA for $39 a week and making $99.50 a week in the theater, but you were okay with that.
RASHAD: I was so happy! I was a college graduate in New York, and I was making that money by typing by day and acting by night. Anywhere you could go to work was just great because that’s what you trained to do.
FITZHARRIS: Did you ever fear you weren’t going to make it?
RASHAD: No, I never had that. I never thought about it. It didn’t occur to me that it wouldn’t work. You don’t think like that. The thought was, “I want to work. Where is the work?” The most amazing thing to me about my professional life is that I have encountered, worked with and then befriended by people that I admired. People that I never imagined I’d even meet. I met Mr. Cosby. I worked with him. Then, in working with him, I met Nancy Wilson, and we became friends. Then Joe Williams was my father (on “The Cosby Show.”)
FITZHARRIS: And Clarice Taylor was your mother-in-law on the show.
RASHAD: Yes, whom I had known because of my work in theater. We became friends.
FITZHARRIS: And Lena Horne
RASHAD: And Lena Horne (she says with marvel). And Danny Kaye. Anthony Quinn.
FITZHARRIS: Elaine Stritch
RASHAD: Yes! Come on. Keep going! Let’s get it all out, child!
FITZHARRIS: And you had another inspiration who didn’t appear on “The Cosby Show,” but meant a great deal to you: Mrs. Weadon.
RASHAD: Mrs. Weadon was my heart. Mrs. Weadon was our heart. She was our homeroom teacher, but she was also my English teacher. Oh, she was amazing! First semester was always dedicated to grammar. Second semester to literature. As a young student you didn’t quite understand why it was that way, but then by the time you were getting ready to graduate, you saw that you had to spend that first semester on grammar because when you moved into literature, without the lessons in grammar, you weren’t going to have the same appreciation for what you were reading. You weren’t going to understand sentence structure, and you weren’t going to be able to write a very fine report about it. So, it all went hand in hand.
FITZHARRIS: But you had been reading advanced literature since you were a child. Your mother, Vivian Elizabeth Ayers, is a writer. How do you feel about reading today?
RASHAD: I like those little things on the iPad. That’s nice and everything, but child, I love holding a book in my hand! I have a great appreciation for books. Honey, I grew up with them, please! So now what are you telling me — children are just going to grow up with iPads and that’s it?
FITZHARRIS: I can’t really say.
RASHAD: I’ll tell you something else, when I visited my mother — I love my mother’s home because I grew up like this, okay — whichever house she’s living in, the home is the same. There is art. There is literature. You understand that you are in the environs of a creative thinker. The energy is just there. I was in my mother’s home a few months ago, and I picked up a book that had been in our family for years. I opened it. Without reading a word, just opening the book, the smells that arose from the pages took me back to childhood. All of a sudden I was in Houston, and I was 9 years old. I remembered what it was like when winter was ending and spring was beginning. All of a sudden I remembered how the light was different.
FITZHARRIS: What book was this?
RASHAD: It was just one of those series of books that people would buy in those days for children to form a library. Just the smell of the pages — I was there. I was there on Binz Street.
FITZHARRIS: Television is so different nowadays —
RASHAD: That’s an understatement.
FITZHARRIS: Do you think a show like “The Cosby Show” could make it today?
RASHAD: Are you kidding? It would not be like “The Cosby Show;” it would have to be “The Cosby Show,” and that would only happen with Mr. Cosby’s unique sensibilities. Do you know there is a young generation growing up watching it? Do you know how contemporary it seems to them?
FITZHARRIS: Yes. It’s like what you were saying about “A Raisin in the Sun;” it’s a classic.
RASHAD: I must confess, when I watch television, I really enjoy watching television from that period of time. I enjoy watching “The Cosby Show.” I enjoy watching “A Different World.” I enjoy watching “Living Single.” I enjoy watching “The Golden Girls.” I love them because they were about something. They were fun, and they were tasteful. Oooo, these people today! Is there any consideration for young, developing minds? The last primetime television series that I really enjoyed was “Frasier.” So intelligent. Love it! The writing was so great, and it was as funny as all get out!
FITZHARRIS: Besides “The Mickey Mouse Club,” which you loved, what did you watch as a child?
RASHAD: There was a time when theater was on television. I remember watching “Oedipus” on television. Oh yeah. I remember “Death of a Salesman” on television. I remember “Playhouse 90.” I remember “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” I grew up watching that kind of television. I mean “Donna Reed” and “Leave it to Beaver” — those were fluff shows. I didn’t pay attention to that. And I loved the variety shows like “The Danny Kaye Show” and “Ed Sullivan.”
FITZHARRIS: And “The Hit Parade.”
RASHAD: Please! And Carol Burnett. The development in the shows was different. I saw the end coming when they started saying, “We’re not going to hire writers who were over 40.” There’s nothing wrong with young writers because there are brilliant young writers, but what were they looking for in terms of development of these people? Does that person have anything of a literary background? Do they read different kinds of things? Do they go to the museum? Do they know something about life and have that probing mind? Now imagine what it’s going to be like for young people who sit in front of the television all day who don’t read and watch reality shows. What is the development of that mind?
FITZHARRIS: When are you going to write a book?
RASHAD: People ask me that all time. My mother calls me her writer who never writes. The first book I would write would be a children’s book — A book for young readers that adults would enjoy. Writing — that’s a real discipline. You know.
FITZHARRIS: You have a lot of thoughts on TV. Why not write about television?
RASHAD: No. The truth about television is: What is it but people trying to make a living? Everybody is trying to live. Everybody is trying to stay alive. Everybody is trying to make themselves happy in a world that is going through very serious changes. When you look at it on a scale of 1 to 10 in terms of what is happening in human events across the globe today, the state of American television is a very small issue. I mean, there are people struggling to breathe and people whose cultures we’ve yet to begin to understand.
FITZHARRIS: What are your thoughts on these “human events” happening around the world today?
RASHAD: It’s so interesting to me to watch a newscast and hear commentary about what is happening in another part of the world. If you’ve traveled to another part of the world or if you know people from another part of the world and you hear such commentary, the first thing that comes to mind is why is the attempt being made to put this in a kind of box when you really haven’t explored this culture of people? You haven’t really even attempted to bring understanding of these people to our people.
FITZHARRIS: What can we do to change that?
RASHAD: Travel. You have travel and see for yourself because the game is thick.
FITZHARRIS: After everything you’ve accomplished, what are you the most proud of?
RASHAD: My children. They are good people. They respect and treat others well. That’s what I like most about my children, and that’s what I’m most proud of.