Actress Phylicia Rashad

Originally aired on November 2, 2010
Guest interviews are usually available online within 24 hours of broadcast.

Tony-winning actress shares her secret for maintaining an award-winning stage and film career without being typecast and describes her character in the much-anticipated new feature film, For Colored Girls.

Phylicia Rashad is known to millions from The Cosby Show. She also has a string of Broadway credits, including A Raisin in the Sun—in a performance which earned her a place in history as the first Black actress to win a dramatic leading role Tony Award and that she reprised in the television adaption. An established singer, she's performed with major symphonies across the U.S. Rashad is a grad of Howard University, where she later taught drama. She's next up in the much anticipated new Tyler Perry film, For Colored Girls, and is set to direct an L.A. production of A Raisin in the Sun.


Tavis: So pleased and honored, in fact, to welcome Phylicia Rashad back to this program. The Tony-winning actress stars in a new film from Tyler Perry. It’s called “For Colored Girls.” The movie is based on the award-winning Broadway play and also features Whoopi Goldberg, Janet Jackson, Loretta Devine and an all-star cast even beyond them. Here now, a preview of “For Colored Girls.”
Tavis: Always honored to have you on this program.
Phylicia Rashad: Thank you.
Tavis: We last did this in New York, so I’m glad you’re in L.A. this time.
Rashad: Yeah.
Tavis: Yeah. Speaking of L.A., you have a daughter who is also an actress who is in a wonderful piece, I’m told. I’m anxious to go see it myself, so tell me about this piece that she’s in.
Rashad: She’s in the 2009 Pulitzer award-winning play “Ruined,” written by Lynn Nottage, which takes place in the Congo, and this was her first job out of school.
Tavis: Wow.
Rashad: She graduated from the California Institute of the Arts and came home, and within a month she was cast in this show.
Tavis: So you came out here to see your daughter, in part.
Rashad: Yes.
Tavis: Yeah – and how was she?
Rashad: Oh – (laughter)
Tavis: As if I could expect any other different answer, but how was she, Ms. Rashad?
Rashad: She was wonderful. (Laughter) She was wonderful. The whole cast is wonderful. But I really am very pleased – I’m very, very pleased.
Tavis: Yeah.
Rashad: Yeah.
Tavis: Did you encourage her, discourage her, or did neither, given the road that you’ve traveled in this business?
Rashad: Well, my mother says I developed her. She was watching me all the time. She was watching me in the discipline of work, you understand, which is quite different than being viewed as a celebrity. She was watching me in the discipline of work, and I’m told that once in a theater at Arena Stage, as a matter of fact, in Washington, D.C., when she was eight years old, she was watching me on stage and a lady in the audience who didn’t know that I was her mother asked her, “Oh, little girl, you’re so pretty. What do you want to be when you grow up?”
And she said, “I want to be a magic lady.” And the lady said, “Oh, you mean a magician?” And she pointed to me on stage and she said, “No, a magic lady, like my mother.”
Tavis: When you heard that it just broke you down, didn’t it?
Rashad: It did. (Laughter) It did.
Tavis: I can only imagine it broke you down when you heard a story like that from your eight-year-old baby.
Rashad: Well, she didn’t tell me this. Someone else who was sitting next to her told me. But when she was three, she was asking for instruction. When she was three, she was sitting at the piano and she said, “Mommy, I need a reading teacher, a piano teacher and a dancing teacher. Can you get me those things?”
Tavis: Mm, at three.
Rashad: At three.
Tavis: So you kind of knew this was coming.
Rashad: Yeah.
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)
Rashad: Yeah, and I was pleased that she was asking for instruction.
Tavis: As opposed to?
Rashad: As opposed to saying, “Mommy, can I be in the show with you,” and anything else.
Tavis: Yeah. You said something a moment ago that I want to go back and get, Phylicia – that being a celebrity is one thing; the discipline is quite another. Talk to me about your discipline, about your regimen, and I ask that because if I’ve heard anything about you – I know you, but even before I got to know you I would hear these stories about the way you work, about how disciplined you are, about how committed and dedicated you are to your craft. This isn’t just – if ever the word “craft” applied to someone in terms of how they see their art, it’s you, so tell me about your discipline where your craft is concerned.
Rashad: Oh, well, mm. (Laughs) I think it comes from many things. First of all it comes from the family in which I was privileged to grow. I grew up in a family of people who were from the salt of the Earth people, and education was very important. I saw by example that it never stops, so that was like the first lesson: Never stop learning, never, ever, ever, ever do you imagine that you know everything that there is to know.
If ever I felt that way I would try to do something else, so that was first. Then there was Howard University, and I learned as a freshman student in the College of Fine Arts at Howard University that there were going to be many football games and fraternity parties that I just was not going to be able to go to because I was going to be in the drama department sewing a seam, moving some scenery or learning some lines.
If this is what you want, this is how it happens. This is what you must do. It requires everything, and it gives you everything, too. So those things, they just stayed with me. That discipline has just – it’s always been there.
Tavis: I don’t think I’ve ever had a conversation with you, and I’m not even sure you’re aware of this and maybe you are, maybe it’s deliberate, but I’ve never had a conversation with you on TV or radio where Howard University – you are a proud Bison, you are a proud graduate of Howard, and every time I talk to you, that comes up.
I raise it now because we’re living in a world now where there is this growing sentiment that we don’t need Black colleges or women’s studies or these, what some people call segregated studies.
I raise that with you because the world got to know you as this wonderful matriarch on “The Cosby Show,” a show that was based in a Black household but that everybody could appreciate, never mind color, race, origin. Everybody appreciated that show, but you come from a Black institution. Can you juxtapose those two things for me?
Rashad: Why don’t we need them? Why wouldn’t we need women’s studies? We still have women. Why wouldn’t we need this historic institution that has given us some of the most incredible American people? Why wouldn’t we need it? Why wouldn’t we need all these institutions? Why wouldn’t we need it? Why don’t we need it? Who said that? They’d better not say it to me. (Laughter)
Tavis: Watch Claire Huxtable get crunk.
Rashad: Please. (Laughter) Don’t come up in here with that nonsense. Yes, we do. Yes, we do. One of the most disturbing things that I have heard most recently is that the Schomburg Library in New York City, which is located in Harlem, which is one of the most complete repositories of literature written by and concerning African American people is to be dismantled, and that those works are going to be placed in various libraries around the city. Do you know what that means?
Tavis: Now, the New York Public Library, as you know, has been pushing back on that of late. I saw a story just the other day where they’ve said, of late, that that’s not the case. I don’t know, I’m not in New York, but I’ve been reading this (unintelligible).
Rashad: Why would such a thing even come up?
Tavis: Even be considered, I got your point.
Rashad: I don’t accept – it’s just you’re moving it back to when? You’re moving it back until when? Eight years, 10 years? Why would you even consider such a thing? Where does that consideration come from? What are you thinking? Don’t you know that this is a very significant part of American history? Don’t you know? What are you talking about? That’s unpatriotic. I won’t have it.
Tavis: The argument, since you raised it, and for those who are probably asking the same question, “Who said that,” and why is that becoming an issue, when you have a historic moment like we are in now with a Black man in the White House as president, that cuts both ways.
It’s inspiring for a whole lot of people, a lot of us celebrate the fact that it happened, but it also gives the critics ammunition – see? If a Black man can be president, we don’t need to be using any kind of government resources, focusing any attention on stuff just for women or just for African Americans or just for Hispanics, and that’s where that push-back starts to come. You know the argument, of course.
Rashad: Well, that’s where we, as people, as citizens of this great nation, need to say, “Wait a minute.” When do we, the people, begin to think for ourselves? When do we begin to read what’s written on the page and understand the implications and the intentions behind it? When do we do that? Until we do, we’re just going to be led to the left and led to the right and led to the left and led to the right, and we don’t really choose a firm direction for ourselves as a nation.
Ours is such a great nation, so many different kinds of people. It’s like the best garden in the world. Why would you tear it up? I guess there are certain things in people – what did James Baldwin say, that people hang on to their hatred because if they ever let it go they’d have to deal with their pain? I know that I’m paraphrasing, but he made a statement like that.
Tavis: Very good paraphrase.
Rashad: Yeah, they’d have to deal with their pain. So people will always say what they say. People will always say many, many, many things, but somehow or other, there is that within this country, in the spirit of our American people, that knows, first of all, there’s room for everybody, which indicates we’re going to have respect. We’re not just going to tolerate, we’re going to respect each other.
Tavis: There is a difference.
Rashad: There is a difference. And this is somehow inherent in us as a nation of people. We really do embody this. We really do. Because if we didn’t, the civil rights movement would never have happened. If we didn’t embody this kind of thinking, there never would have been an American Revolution to begin with.
If we didn’t embody this kind of thinking you couldn’t get people who didn’t know people in Europe to go over and fight Hitler. Come on, why would they bother? Most people over here are not Jewish. Why would they bother? As a child, I always believed, growing up, and I don’t know why, but I always did – I always believed that America was strong because she was good, and that if she ceased to be good, we’d cease to be strong.
Being good is working through all of that which would have us become limited and small and exclusive in our thinking.
Tavis: I’m going to get to “Colored Girls,” I promise.
Rashad: Okay. (Laughter)
Tavis: You keep opening up all these doors, and I keep –
Rashad: I’m sorry, I’m sorry.
Tavis: – I keep being led to the left and led to the right.
Rashad: And to the right – I’m sorry. (Laughter)
Tavis: Following you in these various doors. When you talk about – that’s a powerful, powerful formulation about America being strong because America is good, and I like how you phrase it; not the other way around – strong because we’re good, not good because we’re strong.
So as you’re saying this I’m thinking about your growing up in Houston. One of the great citizens that Texas and Houston has given us is a wonderful woman named Barbara Jordan.
Rashad: Absolutely.
Tavis: So Barbara Jordan once said that as Americans we all want the same thing – Black or White, Republican, Democrat, we all want the same thing. And she said, “To live in a nation as good as its promise.” That’s all we want, is to live in a nation as good as its promise.
So back to your notion of strong and good, I don’t think Jordan, were she here now, would agree that we have arrived at a place yet, that we are as good as our promise. I don’t think we’re there yet. That’s not even the question, though. The question is, is America still good? We’re not as good as our promise yet, but are we still a good nation, to your formulation? Because I could argue you on that all day long.
Rashad: Oh, I’m sure you could, and I’m sure your points would be very valid. When I say the nation is good, I’m saying the nation is good because of what’s in the hearts of people. I don’t think that what’s in the hearts of people is always represented.
I don’t think it’s always represented in – I don’t think it has always been represented in foreign and domestic policy. I don’t think that what’s in the hearts of people is necessarily represented in what some of our corporations do at home and abroad, and the way we become embroiled and entangled in controversy, disputes and fights to protect American interests.
I would say to all of that, every American is American interest. Every human heart is American interest. I would say that peace all over the world is American interest. I would say that respect for all peoples is American interest, and it’s in America’s interest. That’s what I would say.
Now, maybe that’s because I’m just a woman who happens to be a mother. There’s something about being in a delivery room giving birth to people and understanding life in another way. Maybe I’m just simpleminded, I don’t know.
Tavis: I’ll take it. (Laughs) I’ll take it, so we ain’t got to argue, then, and I love you too much to argue with you anyway, especially about something like that. So I don’t know how I’m going to segue to “Colored Girls,” because you keep, again – you’ve said three things now I want to go get you to unpack. (Laughter) But I’ve got to get to “Colored Girls.”
Rashad: Okay.
Tavis: Before the studio gets upset with me for not raising it.
Rashad: Okay, okay.
Tavis: All right, so my first question is – this is a radical shift if ever there was one – I’ve seen the play and I’ve not yet seen the movie. I’m anxious to go see it. But I’m trying to, in my mind, understand how 12 stories, 12 poems, end up becoming a movie. So tell me how the process works first; then we’ll talk about your role in it.
Rashad: Isn’t that amazing?
Tavis: It really is, yeah.
Rashad: Isn’t that amazing, that somebody could conceive of such a thing and then make it happen and bring it off? Now, I like to be accurate in quoting, but I can’t remember the exact number that’s related to what I’m getting ready to say. But on set one day, Tyler was talking about the play “For Colored Girls,” and he had seen something like 45 productions of it, different productions of it – I think that’s right.
He had been studying and watching this play for many years. It wasn’t just something he picked up off the shelf on Monday and decided to do on Friday. He had been studying this piece, and he spent a lot of time with it, exploring how he would develop it.
What he did is create a story in which the lives intersect and the experiences sometimes overlap. That’s how he did it.
Tavis: The character that you play – because I mentioned earlier, this really is an all-star cast. We’ll come to that in just a second. Tell me about the character that you play in the film.
Rashad: I’m Gilda. I guess I’ve heard him say that Gilda’s the woman with all the colors, because there is – the way the choreopoem, Ntozake Shange’s play, the choreopoem “For Colored Girls,” is written, the characters are named Woman in Red, Woman in Orange, Woman in Blue, Woman in Green, Woman in Yellow, Woman in Brown.
In the film, the women have their colors, they’re subtly worn, but they have names, and they have full stories. So when it all reveals itself, it makes sense. It’s the most incredible – I should say incredibly ambitious venture ever in which poetry is going to emerge from prose as part of your dialogue, and it’s just there.
Tavis: To your point now, Phylicia, what do you think – or put another way, what do you hope that this film will do for poetry, to your point now?
Rashad: Oh, it’s going to be very interesting, because it’s never been done before.
Tavis: Exactly.
Rashad: Maybe there’ll be further consideration for what poetry is and what it does and what it can do. We still have people – now it’s called – it’s not called poetry anymore, it’s called “spoken word.” (Laughter) It’s no longer called poetry, it’s called spoken word.
Tavis: Spoken word or “slams,” yeah, exactly.
Rashad: Yeah, you see, yeah, you see, but it’s poetry, and see, this is a beautiful thing, too, that I love to see and love to talk about. Artistic expression is so natural to human beings. It’s inherent in our development. Before a child can speak, the child is singing. Before a child can read, the child is drawing pictures. As soon as a child can stand and walk, they’re dancing.
It’s so natural. So when we see this form of education being eliminated from our public education it’s interesting to see how it finds its way to other places, how it’ll find its way to crunk dancing, how it’ll find its way to spoken word, how it’ll find its way to rap and hip-hop. That’s creative energy; it’s a creative urge of every human being.
Tavis: Speaking of being creative – as you know, I’ve told you so many times, so many things that I’m so impressed with and love about Phylicia Rashad, but one of them, to your point now about being creative, is doing this TV show for so many years and radio show for so many years, I’ve talked to a lot of people about the journey that every actor has to take if they’re blessed, as you have been, to be on a series where you become iconic because of your association with it.
How do you navigate past that to continue to grow and build a career where you don’t get typecast? Everybody loves you and appreciates you as Claire Huxtable, you will never get away from that, and I suspect you’re okay with that.
Rashad: I’m very okay with that.
Tavis: That’s what I thought. (Laughter) But you’ve gone on from that to win the Tony; you’ve gone on from that to do other Broadway work. You’ve gone on from that to film. So you didn’t get sidelined by that, and not everybody in this business is that fortunate, blessed, lucky – you tell me. Or creative.
Rashad: Mm. You have to know who you are, you know? You have to know who you are, and who I am is developing actress. That’s who I am, and that means that I’ll do different things, many different things, and it won’t be just one thing. It won’t be just one character. It won’t be just one kind of character.
If people get stuck in any image, well, they’re stuck, but I’m not going to be stuck. It was really quite something, though, to your point, after “The Cosby Show” ended. I couldn’t get arrested for a year. I wouldn’t be seen for a film – oh, no, no, no. I wouldn’t even be considered for things – just no. After a year had passed, George Wolf called me to come in to “Jelly’s Last Jam” as Sweet Anita, and I went in to “Jelly’s Last Jam.”
Then another year passed, and after that year passed, Kenny Leon came to New York and extended an offer to me to play Angel Allen in Pearl Cleage’s “Blues for an Alabama Sky.” That was a very significant time, because I went to Atlanta, I was at the Alliance Theater, performing in the smaller theater downstairs, but we were in the Woodruff Arts Center, and I was surrounded, surrounded by art, by music, by theater, every single day.
It made me feel like I was back at Howard University, because that’s how it was in the College of Fine Arts. Every day, it’s there, every single day, all day long. It was like a rebirth for me, to be just in that environment, so solid like that for three months, after having been on television for eight years and then in a Broadway show, and having that kind of status and being viewed that way.
Television’s very interesting – you’re seen in people’s homes all over the world, but you don’t see people. You’re isolated in the studio and then you go home to your family and fried chicken and clean the kitchen and go to bed. But you know that’s what you do. (Laughter)
Tavis: But you don’t see people.
Rashad: But you don’t really see people. People think you’re seeing people, but you’re not really seeing people.
Tavis: I got a minute to go. Let me ask you right quick – in that first year post-“Cosby,” when the phone didn’t ring after all the success you’d had and all the money you’d made and all the acclaim, in that first year when the phone didn’t ring, did you think it was over, ever?
Rashad: Oh, no.
Tavis: You never thought that?
Rashad: No.
Tavis: Okay.
Rashad: It was a period of reciprocity. My mother says there must be reciprocity in all things.
Tavis: Right, even when you succeed.
Rashad: Even when you succeed, and what does that mean, really? When have you really succeeded? I’m still working on that. (Laughter)
Tavis: Phylicia Rashad is starring in, as part of an all-star cast, the new film, “For Colored Girls,” directed by Tyler Perry. Phylicia, always glad to have you on the program.
Rashad: Thank you.
Tavis: My pleasure, thank you.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm