Document 56837

‘I Talked to the Light’: A Conversation with Phylicia Rashad With LaShonda Katrice Barnett ©March 2006 A special light emanates from actress Phylicia Rashad, but the real treat begins when you engage her in conversation. Poised and elegant, because she has chosen a path of expression, concealing is not her nature. She speaks with great respect for the power of language, in ways of meaning and aurality. Ms. Rashad’s voice carries cadence, and like body limbs under the spell of a soulful tune, her words dance and delight. They dance in the nimble way they take shape, delighting in their ability to conjure images. She is a master of tonal semantics, of matching pitch and register with words and their definitions, what philologists refer to as significant tone. Born to Dr. Andrew A. Allen and Vivian Ayers-­‐Allen on June 19, 1948, Rashad graduated magna cum laude with a BFA from Howard University. Well known for her work on The Cosby Show, which for its eight-­‐season run (1984-­‐1992) was viewed by more people than any other situation comedy in the history of American television, reportedly earning NBC over a billion dollars, she played the attorney-­‐mother, Claire Olivia Hanks Huxtable, who while holding you in the curve of her heart could also get you told without batting an eye. Rashad forged a positive and memorable depiction of an educated and cultured woman who not only met but flourished under family and career demands. This image countered the 1980s media frenzy that depicted black mothers as welfare queens the head of dysfunctional families. However, it is the stage doyenne phase of her career that provides to this writer the most remarkable and revelatory glimpses into an artist whose depth and talent we’re now experiencing with gleeful astonishment. Ms. Rashad, who sings with the Broadway Inspirational Voices choir and as a guest soloist with major symphonies across the United States, has appeared in numerous dramatic plays and musicals including, The Wiz, Jelly's Last Jam, Into the Woods, Dreamgirls, Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death, Everybody's Ruby, The Vagina Monologues, Blues for an Alabama Sky, Medea, and Blue. Among her film credits are The Visit (2000), Loving Jezebel (1999), Free of Eden (1999), Once Upon A Time When We Were Colored (1996), and many television movies including The Old Settler (2001), Polly (1989) and Polly Comin’ Home (1990). On June 6, 2004, the American Theatre Wing awarded Phylicia Rashad the Tony in the category of ‘best lead actress in a play’ for her role as the matriarchal Lena Younger in the revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. In 2005, Rashad garnered another nomination for her role as the 285-­‐year-­‐old Aunt Ester in August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean. This season she returns in an off-­‐Broadway production in the role of Bernarda Alba in Michael John LaChiusa’s musical adaptation of Federico García Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba. An impressive run for any actress, Rashad maintains that the Tony should not be an overemphasized standard of recognition: "Tony Awards are wonderful and we rejoice for people who receive them, but as an artist this is not the goal. And if it becomes the goal, we’ve taken another direction. That’s not what I trained in. That’s not who I am." On March 21st, I joined Ms. Rashad at the Mitzi Newhouse Theater at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts to talk about her inspiration, her craft, and her recent theatrical roles. ‘I talked to the Light’: A Conversation With Phylicia Rashad (3/21/2006) 1 LKB: Let’s start at the beginning. You come from a very creative family. Your mother, Vivian Ayers Allen, the first poet from the state of Texas to be nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for her work, Spice of Dawn, is also a cultural programmer and the founder of the Adept New American Folk Center and Museum in Mount Vernon, New York. Your sister, Debbie Allen, has a long list of creative talents. PR: Yes. Dancer, choreographer, actress, director, producer. LKB: And your brother, Andrew ‘Tex’ Allen is a noted composer and jazz musician. Can you speak a little bit about the type of environment you grew up in that obviously nurtured and cultivated such wonderful creativity? PR: I grew up in Houston, Texas. As a child one of my favorite past times was hiding in the ditch at the corner slinging mud-­‐pies as the cars drove by. I climbed trees. I used to climb the tallest trees and my sister and brother would be in the yard saying, ‘Come down! Come down! You gon’ be the first one to die cause you ain’t scared of nothing!’ We were like rough riders in the neighborhood [chuckle]. And, with all of that going on—regular childhood things—my mother was teaching us to read music and she was teaching us choral speech. She was not only teaching the three of us, she was teaching all of the children in the neighborhood. All of our friends were coming. I remember learning note value in music from my mother. It was springtime and she taught all of the children note value using candied Easter eggs. She held up an egg and said, ‘This is a whole note and in 4/4 measure it gets four beats.’ Then she divided the egg in half and said, ‘Now these are two half notes and they will get two beats.’ She took us all the way to sixteenth notes. It was my first lesson in fractions. I think I was no more than six years old. My mother taught me to type on blind keys when I was seven. Every morning she would give me a typing lesson on the manual typewriter. She set her desk and typewriter up in the kitchen. Oh yes, my mother is very unconventional. Even today her stuff is in the kitchen. She would wake up very early in the morning, long before we did because those were the quiet hours and that’s when she would write. So, you can imagine this woman with three young children making time to write, making time to exercise her own creativity. No one else was doing this that I knew. John Biggers was constantly in our home as he was from North Carolina. He and my mother had known each other since childhood. He was a professor at Texas Southern University. Carol Simms was another artist who was always in our home. Joseph Mack and Jack Bradley, a violinist who also taught at Texas Southern, were always in our home. And, Edsel Cramer, who was a great portrait artist in the state of Texas, had married my aunt. Many of his portraits hang in the state capitol. This is how I grew, slinging mud pies and listening to discussions about art. LKB: So when did the calling for the theater happen? PR: That happened when I was in the sixth grade. I was eleven years old and like many eleven-­‐year-­‐old girls I was having very serious issues about my appearance. My mother was absolutely beautiful. My mother was so beautiful she would stop traffic in downtown Mexico City and that’s just the truth of it. My father was very handsome. He looked like matinee idol material. All the girls were after my brother. Debbie was cute as pie. And I ‘I talked to the Light’: A Conversation With Phylicia Rashad (3/21/2006) 2 thought when I was born that God was on a lunch break. LKB: Absolutely not! PR: Well, that’s what I thought. And a lot of young girls think that way about themselves. It has nothing to do with what is so; it has to do with what you’re thinking. Well, in the sixth grade, because of my speech patterns, I was selected to audition to read the libretto in the great music festival that was going to take place. The Musicians of Bremen was the tale. Back in those days—when music was part of the curriculum—the music teacher came to the class once or twice a week. Every grade had music books and in the back of the sixth grade music book was the tale of the Musicians of Bremen. It’s a German tale about four animals and how they thwart these thieves in the night. The teachers worked with me every single day rehearsing this libretto because I was to go before the school board—each elementary school had a representative. I was the representative from my school. We worked and we worked and we worked so there was a lot of playtime that I missed. Then the day came for the audition. After the audition the teachers came to me and said, ‘We don’t want you to read the libretto. We want you to be the mistress of ceremonies for the entire festival.’ So, that was another long rehearsal period. Well, when the time for the festival came they took me shopping and bought me a beautiful yellow dress with a white pinafore and I had white shoes and white socks with lace around the edges. My hair was done in Shirley Temple curls and I had a crown of flowers on. When I got dressed I looked at what I was wearing and I felt beautiful. I wasn’t dressing like that every day. I was in the ditch throwing mud pies. [Laughter] So, on the day of the festival I stood before the microphone—this was the first time I ever stood in the spotlight—and the light was so bright I couldn’t see anything. We had rehearsed so much that I knew the script so even though I held it in my hand I didn’t have to read it. So, I stood there and I talked to the light. Every time I stood up I knew what I wanted to say and I just talked to the light. When the program was over and everyone was leaving the Houston Coliseum—that was the largest arena in Houston at the time—I heard several mothers say, ‘Oh there she is. There’s the little girl who spoke so beautifully. Isn’t she beautiful?’ Well, I heard that and thought when I grow up I’ll be an actress and I can play in the light and be beautiful all the time. But, what I really didn’t understand was that this beauty that I was experiencing had little to do with the way I looked and had nothing to do with what I was wearing. I had learned my script so well that I knew it by heart. LK: The beauty was the work. PR: Yes! And, communicating from the heart. That was the beauty. I came to understand that later on. That’s what acting is. That’s why I do it and that’s why I love it. It’s communication from one’s heart. You cannot communicate that which you don’t understand. And your understanding is in your heart. It just is. So that’s how that happened. LKB: I’ve read in several sources that according to your mother in the various matriarchal roles you have taken on you are in fact emulating her. PR: Yes, always she says this. ‘I talked to the Light’: A Conversation With Phylicia Rashad (3/21/2006) 3 LKB: So would it be correct then to say that she’s a major influence in your life and in your art? PR: Absolutely. LKB: And, who else would you add to that list? PR: My father. LKB: Who was a dentist? PR: Yes. My father, Dr. Andrew A. Allen, who loved music and who loved the theater. Had he felt those were viable career paths for him he undoubtedly would have gone in that direction. But he loved dentistry too. He loved what he did. My father was always a major source of support. When it was time to go to college he said, ‘You’re going to Howard University. You’re going to Howard University because it has a recognized department of drama that has been sponsored by the state department. The Howard University Players have performed in Europe.’ He showed me the brochures and said, ‘That’s where you’re going.’ And I applied to some other schools. He said that was fine. But I was going to Howard. And he was right. LKB: You’ve done theater—dramatic plays and musicals, television, and film. Is there a medium you’re eager to gain more experience in? PR: I’d like to do more work in film. I’d like to work with the great directors. And, the reason I want to work with great directors is because that is how you learn and become great. I’m interested in growing. LKB: Recently I learned that you founded your own production company. I’m curious about the impetus for your production company, Chocolate Swan. PR: The name comes from my brother who said to me years ago, ‘When you wake up in the morning and you yawn and stretch it’s so graceful. You look like a swan, a chocolate swan.’ [Laughter] So, I was the chocolate swan and Debbie was red bird. LKB: And Red Bird is the name of her production company? PR: Yes. LKB: Not every thespian has a production company though. PR: I was encouraged to form my own. Jeffrey Holder said to us when were in understudy rehearsal for The Wiz one day, ‘Every dancer should think in terms of becoming a choreo-­‐
grapher. Every actor should think in terms of becoming a director. And every director must think in terms of becoming a producer.’ Jeffrey Holder has been very influential in my thinking. He planted that seed. ‘I talked to the Light’: A Conversation With Phylicia Rashad (3/21/2006) 4 LKB: Is directing on the horizon for you? PR: Yes. LKB: Film? Theatrical works? PR: Film, I don’t know. Theatrical works, yes. And I might add that I will enjoy doing that with students because I learn when I teach. LKB: Do you have a favorite playwright? PR: Yes, August Wilson. Whew…When you go back and read that canon of plays and realize those plays were not written in chronological order— LKB: I just read a piece where I was surprised to learn that Jitney came first. I read this in John Lahr’s book. A year ago a collection of his interviews were published entitled Honky Tonk Parade and the first interview is with August Wilson. PR: Wilson was amazing. To listen to him speak extemporaneously was amazing. And I think it’s haunting that he should write the beginning and the end of his cycle of plays last. LKB: Do you write? PR: My mother says that I’m her writer who doesn’t write. She says I should write. It takes time to write. Chile, I’m busy feeding the dog and the cat and trying to get to the theater on time. [Laughter] When I get home at night, I’m too tired to write. I wake up in the morning and I want to sit quietly for a minute before the people start knocking on the door to come and fix things. [Laughter] LKB: Do you think there is a play inside? A novel or a short story? PR: I know there is. And, I know that I will realize it too. A Raisin in the Sun A pillar of American theater, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun made its Broadway debut in the 1958-­‐59 season. Walter Kerr said of the play in his 1959 New York Herald Tribune review, “Hansberry reads the precise temperature of a race at the time in its history when it cannot retreat and cannot quite find the way to move forward….Three generations stand poised, and crowded, on a detonating cap.” Often the recipient of delimited appraisal for its success as an integrationist play, a variety of factors contribute to Raisin's enduring acclaim. Drawing on the material of her own ethnic group, Hansberry’s play is rife with human insights that ultimately transcend racial concerns. In June of 2004, the Broadway revival of Raisin included the stellar cast of Phylicia Rashad as Lena Younger, Sean Combs as Walter Lee Younger, Audra McDonald as Ruth Younger, and Sanaa Lathan as Beneatha Younger. ‘I talked to the Light’: A Conversation With Phylicia Rashad (3/21/2006) 5 LKB: You told Time magazine that when director Kenny Leon initially approached you to play the role of Lena Younger in A Raisin in the Sun you said no because, and I’m quoting you here, ‘I thought the woman was a brick.’ Later in the interview you commented that re-­‐
reading the play years later enabled you to forge a different impression of Lena. Can you speak a little bit about what you saw in the play most recently that had not been there for you in the past? PR: I saw a woman. I saw a woman who loved a man with her whole heart, who loved a man every way that a woman could. I saw a woman who was a sexual being, not just a matriarch with a wig on or someone posturing and Bible-­‐thumping and whatever else there was that I used to see. I understood some things about her that I hadn’t understood before. I think it was informed by having performed the role of Aunt Ester the year before at the Mark Taper Theater. All of sudden I understood the historical context of this character. I understood it not just intellectually but in terms of my own life because as a young girl I spent a lot of time in Lobdell, Louisiana, on a farm, the farm on which my father was born. As a little girl I gathered eggs, drew water from the pump and watered the cows. I emptied slop jars. I made an attempt at planting potatoes but it was just too tedious. I didn’t have the patience. I ran all over that farm, through the bean fields and the melon vines. I watched my great Aunt Fanny churn butter. I ate that butter. I drank milk that came fresh from the cows. So I understood what it means to live your life growing your own food and what it means to have a garden because I understand it from my own life. LKB: I’m remembering the final scene when the Youngers are leaving their Southside Chicago apartment for the last time. Beneatha and Ruth precede you in taking their leave. You [Lena] stand in the doorway of the apartment and look around the space for one last time before hitting the light switch. But, just when the audience thinks you’re gone you rush back into the apartment and make a beeline to the table where this abandoned house plant sits. The way you picked up that plant and cradled it close to you like it was the most precious thing in the world leaves the audience with the impression that Lena has a special connection to nature. PR: As an actress there are many things that inform a performance. Even though you don’t contrive an action to indicate a significant yet subtle character attribute—because that’s the worst kind of performance—it’s in your understanding and so it manifest in your performance. We were in rehearsal one day for A Raisin in the Sun, which takes place in 1959. I had just performed as Aunt Ester in Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean, which takes place in 1904. So, while in rehearsal I looked at Kenny Leon and said this is 1959? He said yes. I said Lena Younger is 55 years old. She was born in 1904. And, with that there was a complete shift in understanding of the time in which she lived and what she would know as a woman. She would know how to grow her own food. She would know how to kill a chicken. She has probably assisted in delivering babies. She would know how to make things with her hands. She’s a resourceful woman. And, coming from Mississippi, which is where the character comes from which is never talked about in the play but is something Hansberry indicates, Lena probably knows something of broken families. This is critical to understanding her relationship to her own family. You see, the thing that black people were denied in slavery that was most important was family. ‘I talked to the Light’: A Conversation With Phylicia Rashad (3/21/2006) 6 I have read accounts of men who lived on one plantation and their wives and families lived on another. They would risk death over and over and over again. They would get caught and beat within an inch of their lives and they would go back again! Nothing meant more to them than family. So, when I see these dudes today with all this bling-­‐bling, just riding around, I say to myself, what has happened to the importance of having your children and watching them grow? For my father his children were the most important parts of his life. I grew up in a family like that. So now I understood in a deeper way what Lena’s relationship to her husband had been, and how she still holds that relationship inside herself. In the script, she talks about it once but her deep love for him is present throughout the entire play. And you know what? I know women like this. I know elderly women who have lost their husbands twenty years ago and they talk about them like they’re sitting right there at the table because the love is so deep. But, I hadn’t experienced any of this when I watched the film years ago. Prior to the revival, I had also been in two productions of the play in which I played the character Ruth but, again, I hadn’t experienced these things. I hadn’t seen what Kenny Leon was seeing in the play, which is what he brought to life as a director. This is not a civil rights play. This is not a story in which a black family’s dilemma is solved because they move into a house in a white neighborhood. That’s not what this play is about at all. There are three different love stories going on in this play: the love of a dream deferred; romantic love which Lena still carries in her heart for her deceased husband and of course the love between Walter Lee and Ruth; and love of family. This play is about longing. And, this play is about holding a family together when the values of the young people have changed so that you don’t even recognize them. And as a parent you’re wondering how did that happen? That play is a masterpiece! I hadn’t seen it because Lorraine Hansberry was very young when she wrote it and if you just read it sometimes the words feel heavy on the tongue. They feel weighted, but you have to get past that and let it breathe, let it live. That happens when you can find and experience all these other levels of being beneath it. I understand much more about Lena Younger than what is on the page. For me, that’s what acting really is. It isn’t merely saying the line, that’s just part of it. It’s finding everything that’s not on the page. Gem of the Ocean The director Marion McClinton says of August Wilson, “It’s August’s language—the rhythm of hurt, the rhythm of pain, the rhythm of ecstasy, the rhythm of family which sets him apart.” Gem of the Ocean, chronologically first in Wilson’s oeuvre of plays, delivers some of Wilson’s most rhythmically poetic language through the character Aunt Ester. Set in 1904 Pittsburgh, the story unfolds at 1839 Wylie Avenue, the home of Aunt Ester, which she shares with Black Mary and Eli. Aunt Ester is known for her ability to “wash souls,” absolving sinners of their sins. When a young man named Citizen Barlow comes to Aunt Ester to be absolved he is unaware that the mystical elder will bequeath him with a gift far greater than absolution. LKB: During the October 3, 2005, interview with Ed Gordon, commenting on Wilson’s language you stated, ‘The characters are engaging and colorful and easily accessed because of his writing. He captures the way they speak.’ I’m wondering what an actor does—what you do—if the language is not true. How do you access a character if for you, personally, the language is false? ‘I talked to the Light’: A Conversation With Phylicia Rashad (3/21/2006) 7 PR: It’s rough! [Laughter] LKB: So how do you get past that? You have the script, you’re reading through and you think she wouldn’t say that or she wouldn’t feel that way. Yet the onus is with you. You have to lend some truth to the character so that the audience will connect with it. How do you get past the falsehood? Have you ever encountered this? PR: Oh, please. Yes, that has happened to me. [Laughter] When the language is false, it’s like plumbing. You have to dig deep. You have to go underneath the kitchen sink and take all the pipes apart and put them back together in a way that allows the water to flow through. I try to find out what is at the core of the character’s being. What is this character’s essence? What is this character feeling? Because sometimes there’s another thing that happens. Sometimes there’s a character that you play who is saying many things and they are not at all what the character is thinking. And the character is doing that on purpose but there’s nothing on the written page to indicate what the character is really thinking. So, in this case it isn’t false. It’s a matter of where the character is in the scene and what the character’s motivations are but isn’t necessarily indicative of what is happening inside of the character. I had a role like that and it was great. That role was as Zora Neale Hurston in Everbody’s Ruby by Thulani Davis. As an ethnographer, Zora spends a lot of time talking to people and she is not revealing what’s happening inside of her until the very end. And, even then she’s withholding a little bit. LKB: This reminds me of a comment you made during an interview with Michele Norris on NPR’s “All Things Considered” program in August of 2004. When Norris asked you how you begin the process of character-­‐building, you replied that you ask the character questions. Turning our focus now to the most important female character to emerge from August Wilson’s cycle of plays, Aunt Ester from Gem of the Ocean, I’d like to know what type of questions you asked of a 285-­‐year-­‐old ex-­‐slave. PR: Well, if you think of her as a 285-­‐year-­‐old ex-­‐slave you will never know her because that’s not how she experiences herself at all. And that’s a really important fact for people to understand. If you say that somebody is an ex-­‐slave, what does that mean? No, you’ve got to access the human being. Now, I will say this. There is not another character in the entirety of theater literature like Aunt Ester. Not-­‐a-­‐one. Aunt Ester is the most spiritual human being I’ve ever portrayed. LKB: On the subject of Aunt Ester in the context of his play King Hedley II, Wilson says, “Aunt Ester is the tradition. If you don’t value that, then you lose it. So, in 1985, these kids are out there killing one another…and Aunt Ester dies of grief.” Beyond ‘tradition’ and in the context of Gem of the Ocean, who is Aunt Ester? PR: Aunt Ester is complete and total spirit. She holds within her being the memory of all of the people who experienced the Middle Passage. And, this is living memory and it ain’t heavy and it ain’t sad because she awakens remembrance in the deepest parts of others. She carries them to the City of Bones, which is a transcendent experience. Out of the wreckage of human experience and out of the power of calling on God’s name paradise is created and that’s where she takes them. She says it! It’s so subtle. She says, ‘I talked to the Light’: A Conversation With Phylicia Rashad (3/21/2006) 8 ‘I’m gon show you what happens when all the people call on God with the one voice.’ She tells Citizen Barlow, ‘The people that you seeing is without God but I’m gon show you what happens when all the people call on God with the one voice. God got beautiful splendors!’ My experience with this role was that even if people do not understand the depth of what this means they are affected by the power in these words. This parallels Sanskrit scriptures. This is what is so brilliant about this work. In this play, August Wilson has presented on stage the greatest spiritual truth in the context of his own ethnicity! It don’t get better than that. I’m sorry, it don’t get better than that. LKB: You say that Aunt Ester awakens in people a remembrance, or a ‘rememory’ as Toni Morrison refers to it in her novel, Beloved. I think that what is so spectacular about your performance of Aunt Ester is that in your interpretation of her the process of awakening is gentle and joyful. In fact, you’ve mentioned elsewhere that part of your work in creating Aunt Ester was to find her joy. This is quite a contrast with our impression, say for example, of the mythical Beloved, at least as she is rendered in the film version directed by Jonathan Demme. Portrayed by the actress Thandie Newton, Beloved frightfully and impatiently coerces Sethe’s rememory whereas Aunt Ester exercises patience and faith with Citizen Barlow while connecting him to the deepest parts of a heritage he has mightily denied. So, you come away from Gem of the Ocean—or at least I did—feeling that there is nothing to fear about coming into the knowledge of one’s true self, one’s heritage. And, that there is joy to be found in the process! PR: Not only is there nothing to fear, it’s your ultimate responsibility as a human being. When they come to the City of Bones what they come face-­‐to-­‐face with is the light of God in their own being. That’s what Wilson wrote in the context of his own ethnicity and cultural heritage. If you remember the scene when Citizen arrives he says, ‘The gates are opening.’ He looks around and sees many things. Then, for the first time, he sees the light of God in himself and it changes him forever. It’s a classical spiritual experience that is written about in different scriptures. The way Wilson placed that scene in a play that is talking about civics, economics, love, history, is absolutely masterful and amazing. It’s the most inspired work I’ve ever been privileged to perform and I do mean privileged. Oh, to say those words night after night was a real gift. The interesting thing about this play is that it never has a long run. But everybody who is supposed to see it does. People would sit in the audience and weep when the curtain had come down because the experience was so powerful. One man came to see it and he didn’t understand the idiom in which we were speaking because he was European. He told me he didn’t understand why people were laughing because he was unfamiliar with the vernacular. However, he went on to say, ‘But when you went to the City of Bones I understood everything! I understood everything that happened before and everything that happened afterwards.’ ‘I talked to the Light’: A Conversation With Phylicia Rashad (3/21/2006) 9 Bernarda Alba: A Musical The musical drama Bernarda Alba (words and music by Michael John LaChiusa, choreography by Gracíela Daniele) is based on Federico García Lorca’s 1936 play La Casa de Bernarda. Lorca described the play, written before the Spanish revolution and Civil War, as a portrait of life for women in rural Spain. The drama courses recently-­‐widowed Bernarda who is so determined to preserve the virginity of her five daughters (all of marrying age) and protect the family reputation that she enforces an eight-­‐year mourning period. Tensions build as Bernarda’s tyrannical plan misfires and the flamenco-­‐inflected musical moves to a startling and moving confrontation. LKB: What sparked your interest to play Bernarda? PR: This is a different creative collaboration with Graciela Daniela and Michael John La Chiusa. I had asked of myself to broaden my circle of associates. I felt I needed new creative collaboration and within two days this offer came. This is a play that traditionally is very difficult to access. Lorca writes dramatic tragedy. There is poetry and humor there but once it gets translated into English a lot is lost. It would be like translating Wilson into Spanish. The rhythm of the speech is altered. And so, non-­‐Spanish speaking actors, we tend to get very grand in our performance of Lorca’s work and it becomes something else. Lorca was writing about low-­‐country people. Bernarda is a country woman from the south of Spain who has never been out of this tiny village she lives in. She is so driven by pride and fear it has locked her down. She holds herself above everything and everyone and is so fearful that it might be found out that she’s not, so fearful that she might find out that she’s not that fear rules her existence. We’re talking about the antithesis of Aunt Ester now. And, yet, the capacity to love is there, she just chooses to suppress it. LKB: Bernarda is a widow who has in fact lost two husbands. Is it that she chooses not to love because she believes she will inevitably lose whom she loves? PR: I think it’s the culture in which she lives. She must hold herself a certain way. A central concern of Bernarda’s that courses throughout the play is the nagging question of what will happen if one of her daughters is with a man? How will they be viewed by the neighbors? And the community? She’s worried that they’ll all end up in the whore house. That scene in which Limbrata’s daughter talks about putting a burning coal in the place of her sin is based on truth. This is based on things that actually happened to women. They tell me in some places today it still does. However, on another level, Lorca isn’t just writing about Bernarda and her five daughters. He’s writing about anyone who’s in a position of power and control who refuses to recognize the needs, the thoughts, and the feelings of the people. Tragedy always ensues with that. LKB: If the play continued, do you think that after Bernarda sees her daughter dangling from the noose— PR: —that she changes? No. What I think is that everybody finds a way to leave her alone. Why would you want to continue living like that? ‘I talked to the Light’: A Conversation With Phylicia Rashad (3/21/2006) 10 LKB: You’ve performed in other musicals such as The Wiz, Dream Girls, Into the Woods… PR: Jelly’s Last Jam, Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death. LKB: How does the work for a musical differ from your work in a dramatic play? PR: In Bernarda Alba the two come together in a way that they don’t usually coexist in a musical. With music there is an added focus. How do you continue singing the same song precisely as it is written and give expression to it? Acting isn’t so rigid. But then you come to realize that singing isn’t so rigid either. This musical is completely different from any other musical I’ve ever been in because of the nature of the music. This music does not have the brassy, bold feel of what we might associate with a show tune. This music has an acoustic, open and earthy feel. The music informs us of the inner landscape of the characters. It shows us what’s not written in the script. LKB: That you are now playing the role of a rural Spanish widow and mother might suggest that in the 21st century color-­‐blind casting may be catching on. Do you feel that race and gender has impacted the trajectory of your career in the theater? PR: I don’t think like that. I’ve never allowed myself to think like that. LKB: And that’s why it hasn’t impeded you. PR: Yes. I think about what I want. I have learned not to spend time thinking about what I don’t want. It isn’t that I’m saying that discrimination doesn’t exist in the theater because that would be tomfoolery and I am not a foolish person. I’m saying I can choose the way I think and I exercise the right to choose the way I think. LKB: That was very clear when you were awarded the Tony in 2004. The press made relentless commentary regarding the fact that you are the first black woman to receive the award in the lead actress category while you downplayed this with ‘Can’t we get past this? It’s the twenty-­‐first century. Can’t we focus on the artistry itself?’ PR: Yes, because I wasn’t aware that the award was given because of ethnicity. I know that it means a lot to a lot of people and I don’t want to dismiss that. I understand that. But, didn’t we go through the Civil Rights movement so that we could be on a level playing field? LKB: Yes. Not to be integrated, which is how some interpret King’s activism and his legacy. He didn’t die so that we could live next door to white people and so our children could attend white schools. He died so that we might live a fully human existence. PR: No, he died because somebody shot him. Let’s get clear about why he died. He died because somebody shot him. Okay?...Now that we got that straight. [Laughter] As human beings we’d do very well to take a very close look at our habitual thinking. ‘I talked to the Light’: A Conversation With Phylicia Rashad (3/21/2006) 11 LKB: That question though is not about how black thespians see themselves but rather how non-­‐black playwrights and casting directors enable or disable black theatrical performance. PR: I can’t do that. I understand exactly what you’re asking but I can’t think like that and do what I do. I went to Flamenco Festival. Did you go? LKB: No. PR: Darling, you should go and see the different textures of hair from the people in Spain. I saw my hair on the Spanish ladies. I saw hair coarser than mine. My point is, you must open your eyes, open your heart, and open yourself to what and who you really are. Don’t worry about all of that. When you open yourself you come to understand what you are and why you are living. What gives life its juice? Its flavor and its meaning? What really does that? And what is that thing inside every human being that connects us all? And why don’t we recognize it? Why are we so reluctant to embrace the fact that as human beings we are much more alike than we could ever be different? What is that about? See, that’s what I like about theater. We’re exploring and investigating that all the time. It doesn’t matter whether it’s A Raisin in the Sun or Gem of the Ocean, you see this question in every work because this is what human beings do. This is what theater is; this is what art does: it holds a mirror up to humanity. End. ‘I talked to the Light’: A Conversation With Phylicia Rashad (3/21/2006) 12