The Tony-winning actress reflects on her versatility in the business and adding theater director to her long list of successes.
Actress-director Phylicia Rashad
Tavis: Phylicia Rashad’s outstanding career as an actress and director has won her a myriad of awards, including a Tony Award for her role in the revival of “A Raisin in the Sun” and two Emmy nominations for her role as Claire in the long-running series, “The Cosby Show.”
The revival of August Wilson’s epic drama, “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” which she is now directing has just opened here at the Mark Taper in Los Angeles. Ms. Rashad, always an honor to have you on this program.
Phylicia Rashad: Thank you so much.
Tavis: Is it just me or do I see you directing something every time I look up [laugh]? You’re just directing everybody and everything now.
Rashad: Oh, not everybody, not everything, not yet.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah, but you’re doing a lot more of this, though.
Rashad: Yes, I am.
Tavis: Conscious, deliberate, I assume?
Rashad: No. Actually, because people invite me to do it.
Tavis: What do you get out of it? What’s the takeaway for you from directing as opposed to acting?
Rashad: Oh, my goodness. Well, first of all, it’s working with the entire production and the entire creative team. You know how that works, how that happens, how to galvanize energies to move in alignment with a vision as the vision is developing. That’s an amazing thing. It’s an amazing experience for me.
Tavis: I expect that experience is made easier when you have work like August Wilson’s.
Rashad: Well, it’s easier in one way and…
Tavis: I thought you might say that.
Rashad: Demanding in another. I mean, you better get it right.
Tavis: Tell me more, tell me more.
Rashad: Well, the text is perfect, you know. Often as an actor, when I think about my years in theater, there were so many times we’d pray the audience understood when we would do it ’cause we didn’t [laugh]. And it’s because who knew, who knows? But when you have a great text, that is a tremendous help both as an actor and as a director, a great text, you know.
Tavis: For you, because you have directed his work, you’ve been in his work, for you, first question, what it is about August Wilson? Then I want to come specifically to “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” because, of that 10-play corpus, this one gets a lot of revival work. So first, the question about – just talk to me about August Wilson as you see his brilliance.
Rashad: He’s an inspired writer. Now what do I mean by that? You know, people are inspired by different things, of course. He didn’t write anything he didn’t hear inside himself. That’s a very different approach to work. That’s very different than manipulating ideas, you know. That’s a very different premise. And he’s steeped in the craft of playwriting. But to be an inspired playwright, oh, that’s a horse of a different color.
Tavis: Before we get back to “Joe Turner,” can you tell on the page without regard to the writer whether or not it was inspired or whether it’s, to your point, manipulating events, moments, ideas? Can you tell the difference in just reading the work?
Rashad: You can feel the difference.
Rashad: You feel it. It’s as simple as that. You feel it.
Tavis: So “Joe Turner.” This is, again, August has done 10 plays, all good stuff on this historic continuum. But there’s something about this play that I think – I know. As a matter of fact, I was just thinking about this yesterday. I’ve seen “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.” I have seen that more than anything else in the 10-play…
Rashad: In the canon.
Tavis: In the canon, thank you. I said corpus. Why does this one keep coming back?
Rashad: There’s something about this play. There is something about this play. I am told that August considered this the perfect play. What is this play about, you know?
Tavis: That’s a loaded question.
Rashad: That’s a loaded question and a loaded answer too.
Tavis: It’s got a bunch of different answers to it.
Rashad: It’s got a lot…
Tavis: If you’ve seen it, it’s got a myriad of answers to it.
Rashad: Myriad answers to it, myriad answers to it. And it captures you. It takes you in a way. There’s always – well, not always, but certainly in this play and in “Gem of the Ocean,” even “Radio Golf” to a certain extent, not in the mystical way in which it’s presented in “Joe Turner” and in “Gem of the Ocean.”
But there is this underlying theme of being connected to the past, connected to the history, connection to the middle passage and what that connection means to the individual. How do you understand yourself? What do you know of yourself? How that allows you to move through life or lack of knowledge hinders your movement?
Tavis: How would you qualify or define how good a job he did with the through-line on this historical continuum that you were referencing earlier? Obviously, the canon covers a journey.
Tavis: People take a piece of that journey and try to do something with it. His whole work stated is taking you from here to here. That’s a lot of ground to cover, a lot of responsibility and yet he did it. But what do you make of how he did it?
Rashad: Oh, he did it. He did it in a most amazing way because, if you look at the first play chronologically, which is “Gem of the Ocean,” and the last play, “Radio Golf,” he ties the last into the first with familial relationships that are uncovered, that are discovered. And if you see “Radio Golf,” you say, “Oh.” But then if you see “Gem of the Ocean,” you say, “Oh!”
Tavis: I get it [laugh].
Rashad: Yeah, because he brings the cycle full circle. He ties it in that way.
Tavis: When you said inspired to one of my earlier questions about August Wilson’s work, I thought immediately of how inspired I was to read and have a few connections here and there to know that he was working on it.
August and I were never friends, but I’m such a fan of his work. I’m checking in on him through my own contacts to see how he’s doing. Everybody knows he’s sick and he’s dying. Speaking of inspired, he put the finishing touches on this thing, the last one, “Radio Golf,” on his deathbed literally.
Rashad: Yes, he did.
Tavis: He was not getting out of here until he finished that last play.
Rashad: He left “Gem of the Ocean” immediately to begin work on “Radio Golf.” We opened on Broadway in December, we closed in February. “Radio Golf” was up in New Haven in April. He had a mission. He had something to do and he did it.
Tavis: Let me jump from August being inspired to what inspires you these days. And I want to be clear that I’m not trying to rush you out of here, off of planet earth, that is. I’m not trying to rush you off the stage any time soon, the stage of life or the stage of Broadway. But as you – what’s the word my grandmother used, chronologically gifted. As you get more chronologically gifted year after year…
Tavis: Are you inspired in different ways now? Are there urgencies that you feel in your life, in your work? Do you know what I’m getting at?
Rashad: Yes, I do.
Tavis: Tell me more about how you’re processing life, your life’s task, your work, your mission. Just talk to me about that.
Rashad: Well, I ask myself certain questions, you know. I ask myself the question what would it be like – I asked this question a couple of years ago. What would it be like to direct a play that was completely new to me, that was completely new to an audience? And that happened at the Goodwin Theater with “Immediate Family.” So I said, okay. So now I ask myself just how creative can I really be and what does that mean? That’s a big question.
Tavis: I said when you came on the set that I’m anxious to get back to New York. I’ve been everywhere but New York the last few weeks, it seems, and I keep reading and reading and reading and I am anxious to get back to see your baby. Condola is in “Trip to Bountiful?”
Tavis: With Cicely Tyson.
Tavis: I’m still cracking up. Cicely Tyson is 88 years old doing multiple shows per week.
Tavis: That’s like she’s killing me with this.
Rashad: This is what we do [laugh].
Tavis: I mean, she’s 88 and she’s doing at least five shows every week! But everything I read about her, your daughter’s name is in it. You know, this is the proverbial question. You must be proud of your daughter.
Rashad: Oh, I am. I really am. I’m very proud of her work ethic. I am very proud of her understanding.
Tavis: Wonder where she got that!
Rashad: I don’t know [laugh]. Maybe from my mother [laugh]. Maybe from my mother.
Tavis: Yeah. I think from her mother who got it from her mother.
Rashad: Yeah. I’m really happy. That’s what I’m happiest about because she understands that it’s really about the work and she understands the value of work and she loves it.
Tavis: But what’s amazing about this to me, though, with her – I shouldn’t say amazing. It’s not amazing. It’s a beautiful thing. But it’s not often or not always that the child of a star, an iconic star in her case, the child of a star jumps in this business and so early on does work that is met with critical acclaim. That don’t happen every day.
Rashad: I know.
Tavis: You know this?
Rashad: I do know that, but that’s Condola. She has imbibed the best of what she’s seen. That’s the only way I can explain it. And she has her own take on things and her own way of entering the life of a character and she’s good at it.
Tavis: I know she’s good. You’ve been here directing “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” now at the Taper, just opened this past Wednesday. Have you seen her in “Trip to Bountiful” yet?
Rashad: No. I was…
Tavis: You haven’t even seen it yet?
Rashad: No, because I’ve been here…
Tavis: That’s what I’m saying. I didn’t think you’d seen it yet.
Rashad: No, Mommy missed, Mommy failed, Mommy missed [laugh], but Mommy’s coming.
Tavis: Yeah, so you’ll get a chance.
Rashad: Oh, I’m looking forward to it; I’m so looking forward to it.
Tavis: So when you sit in the audience – she’s watched you for years, but when you sit in the audience now and watch her, you’re nervous? You’re comfortable? You’re relaxed? How do you…
Rashad: It’s like watching someone I don’t know. It’s really good. I marvel at it because she inhabits her characters. I love that. I watch her and just, yeah.
Tavis: Let me come back before my time is up. I got about a minute and a half here. I want to come to “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” again at the Taper for those in L.A. or coming to L.A. You’ll want to check it out. What’s the contemporary takeaway for the audience today? It’s obviously an historical play. It’s a timepiece, a period piece, rather. So what’s the contemporary takeaway, do you think?
Rashad: You know, I haven’t really spoken to people in the audience except to hear them say, “Wow!” Because he wrote about life. He wrote about people in life and the lives of people that you’d pass on the street and just not think there was much to their lives that would be interesting to you. But he elevated their lives to interest. What do human beings want and value most in life? What is it that we search for and long for really? It’s love. That’s really what human beings really want.
Tavis: Whether we acknowledge it or not.
Rashad: It’s the truth.
Tavis: The older I get, the more I couldn’t concur with you more. We all want to be loved, we want to be respected, we want to be acknowledged and, every now and then, we want to be paid attention to. At the center of the human condition is a cry for help. We all want to be loved.
Rashad: We want to not just be loved. We want to know love. We want to experience love. This is what human beings really crave. And what we see in the character of Harold Loomis isn’t just a person who’s angry, but a person who is wounded, who is angry, who is wounded and who is in search of some kind of understanding about what does any or all of this mean.
And he keeps saying, “I’ve got to find my way in life. I’ve got to find my starting place in life and, when I find my wife, that’d be my starting place,” he says. He’s a man who was so disconnected from his own life through no fault of his own and it’s bewildering.
As an audience, we sit and we watch this and we watch this man who is surrounded by good-natured people who don’t seem to understand him at all, even though they’re good-natured people. There’s just so much.
Tavis: That’s August Wilson for you, though.
Rashad: That’s August Wilson.
Tavis: He packs it. So you were talking about love a moment ago. This weekend is all about love because this weekend is Mother’s Day. I have asked you in so many of our previous conversations about the role your mother’s played in your life. So I know a bit about this story with you and your sister, Debbie Allen, and such a wonderful family.
As you get older and as you are for years now a parent and you see your daughter making her way in the world, what do you most appreciate now about your momma at this point in your life?
Rashad: Her honesty. My mother is and has always been completely honest about who she is and what she thinks and what she looks for. My mother has always been completely honest about that. And sometimes it can be disconcerting. Oh, yes [laugh]. But in the end, in the beginning, the middle and the end, it has allowed us, her children, to grow in honesty.
Tavis: Thank you for sharing that. I want to say goodbye to you and thank you for coming, first of all.
Rashad: Thank you.
Tavis: You’re welcome back here any time.
Rashad: Thank you.
Tavis: “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” at the Mark Taper here in L.A. You will want to get down there to see the play directed by Phylicia Rashad. Happy Mother’s Day to you.
Rashad: Thank you.
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