Though she’ll be forever known as the iconic Clair Huxtable from The Cosby Show, there’s definitely a whole lot more to actress and director Phylicia Rashad. Most recently, she put the final touches on a new play she’s directing which premieres this month at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, Immediate Family. And there's more.
In addition to directing plays and acting in films such as Good Deeds, Change of Plans and the upcoming Gods Behaving Badly, she will be a regular on the new NBC suspense drama Do No Harm. Rashad also recently performed together for the first time with her daughter Condola Rashad—who was has been making quite a name for herself on Broadway and was nominated this month for a Tony Award for her role in the Broadway play Stickfly.
Below EBONY chats with Rashad during a break in rehearsal about Immediate Family, her daughter Condola and the general state of television today.
EBONY: You’ve been directing plays now for about five years. What lead you into that direction?
RASHAD: Well, honestly I was asked to do it. The first time was an invitation to direct August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean at the Seattle Repertory Theatre and it’s my favorite play of all time. No one had ever written anything like that before. And then the next invitation came just last year to direct a production of Raisin in the Sun in Los Angles. And actually there were three incarnations of it. The first production was at the Ebony Repertory Theatre, then there was a reprise at Ebony Rep and then there was a third one at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. And then came this invitation for Immediate Family. And this invitation was particularly interesting because after working the two previous plays I asked myself what would it be like to work with a new play with an emerging playwright. Hmmmmmm.
EBONY: So what do you get out of directing? You could have done it once and said O.K that’s it, but you obviously get something deeper out of it.
RASHAD: I learn something all the time. I’m learning more about the craft of theater and I’m learning a lot as an actress. Like, for example, most of time we work harder than we need to,bBut it is work. It’s definitely work. And this play Immediate Family is a definite workout. You have to have muscles to do it. But it’s another kind of skill. A skill that develops over time.
EBONY: There are many new plays that go begging to be produced. What drew you this particular one, Immediate Family?
RASHAD: Paul Oakley Stovall, the playwright, was someone who I met recently and we worked together on Ifa Bayeza’s play Charleston Olio at the BB King Museum in Mississippi. So he told me that he had written some plays and would like to share them with me and would I like to read them? I said yes, so he send me these two plays. Months pass and he sends me an email saying: “Oh, by the way did I tell you that I wanted you to direct this play?” I said “No you didn’t” and he said “Well, I’m asking you would you like to direct this play now?”
EBONY: And when you’re in the rehearsal phase of putting a play together what do you discover during that process?
RASHAD: You discover so many subtle connections that run through it. If the playwright knew every little thing about his play, why bother? There must be discovery all the time, otherwise why bother to do it?
EBONY: To go off into another subject, and I know this is a dumb question, but you’re no doubt proud of your daughter Condola?
RASHAD: (laughs) Yes I am. I am very proud.
EBONY: Did you try to discourage her from going into the business or was she one of those lucky kids who had parents who said, do whatever you want to do as long as it makes you happy?
RASHAD: Well, when she very, very young she asked for instruction. She asked for a piano teacher, a dance teacher and a reading teacher. She asked for those things when she was three years old. And then shortly after that I took her to see a performance at the Alvin Ailey. She was dressed in her pretty little dress and we want backstage, because I knew some of the people in the company back then, and she looked around and she said: “When is it going to be my time, Mommy?”
She wasn’t just growing up watching television and films. She was growing up watching me work. Actually work in the theater. When I did Into The Woods she was barely two, but she was in the theater with me. She was always with me. She was on the set of The Cosby Show watching us put it together and work. She watched my sister Debbie work. She was exposed to my sister’s academy as a pre-teen and that was all about work. She’s always been involved in a work ethic, in a work level and that has been of great interest and joy to her. She enjoys working.
EBONY: And what was it like to finally work with her on that Lifetime Channel remake of Steel Magnolia coming out soon?
RASHAD: It was beautiful. It was absolutely beautiful. It was beautiful to see her so natural and so free. To see her so comfortable and to see her holding it down— and earning that respect from everybody.
EBONY Was it always in the back of your mind that maybe one day you would have a chance to work with her on a project?
RASHAD: No. What was in the back of my mind was something else she said as a little girl. She said: “Mommy, when I grow up we’ll be best friends and laugh all the time.” That’s what she said.
EBONY: Talking about acting, do you prefer acting on the stage or in film or TV?
RASHAD: It’s all the same to me, it’s acting. It is what it is. You have to prepare. You have to prepare or decide to prepare the same way though the methods may be different. But what I do love about the theater is the time that you have to rehearse.
EBONY: Have you even done anything where you say to yourself, “That was great, I can’t do it any better than that!”?
RASHAD: No, no. It’s always in the back of my mind, “It could be better.”
EBONY: I guess I can’t avoid bringing up The Cosby Show, but let me put it in this way: there’s never been another TV show that has come close to replacing it after all these years. Everything has gotten louder, cruder and more stereotyped. Is that a conspiracy or a reflection of society today?
RASHAD: It’s a lack of imagination and understanding.
EBONY: But you can argue that always been the case about television or movies.
RASHAD: It’s a lack of imagination and understanding. With imagination and understanding things are different.
EBONY: And you are tolerant about TV today?
RASHAD: I believe that [TV] is beginning to change. I think it’s getting ready to shift, I had a talk with Brandon Tartikoff (the late head of NBC programming during the 1980’s) about the time when The Cosby Show was coming to its conclusion and he said: “It’s getting bad, he was talking about the state of television, and it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better.” He told me that years ago and he was very right.
There are some wonderful things on television right now. I love Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire, Scandal, Luther. Wonderful things on television and wonderful things coming up too. It’s not done yet. This stuff comes in waves. There was a time when I couldn’t watch sitcoms for a while because it was just cacophony, it was just noise.
EBONY: My theory is that a lot of bad TV and movies today are created by people who haven’t lived a life where they gone out and seen the world, had other types of jobs and met other kinds of people. John Huston had been a boxer, a soldier in the Mexican army and a screenwriter before directing films, Victor Fleming, who directed Gone with the Wind, had been a car mechanic, for example.
RASHAD: It’s a lack of imagination and understanding. But you know what? People do what they know to do and they do the best they can. People are just doing what they can. Things have a way of moving to the left, and then they move back to the right before somebody finds themselves in the center. That seems to be the nature of the creative world. It’s not stagnant. I don’t get upset about it.
So if there something worth watching on television and I have time to watch it and I’ve competed my tasks, I can get myself to that. If there’s nothing to watch; I know how to entertain myself. I don’t have to get upset about it. If there are no films or plays of interest to me, I don’t go. I know how to go to a museum or a library or pick up a good magazine or I can watch the sun set. I know how to live. There’s a whole creation out there full of magic and wonder to be explored. And besides that I have good friends I can sit down with a glass of water and laugh.
EBONY: Glass of water? You mean wine…
RASHAD: No water! (laughs)