Whether you know her as one of America’s most respected mother, Clair Huxtable from the long-running NBC sitcom “The Cosby Show,” or the Mother of the Black community, Phylicia Rashad has rightfully earned her title as a legend in theater and film that has uplifted several generations and is continuing to do so.
The 70-year-old was honored for her commitment to supporting arts and culture by the second annual True Colors Applauds Awards Brunch on Saturday, June 1, at the InterContinental Buckhead Atlanta Hotel.
In 2002, co-founders Kenny Leon and Jane Bishop created works of theatre art that honor the African-American experience, lift diverse voices, and create cultural understanding.
Leon, who was the co-founding Artistic Director, departed from the company last fall, and has now been named the company’s artistic director emeritus for next season.
Rashad first met Leon three years after the show “Cosby” and not “The Cosby Show” had ended.
“He invited me to come to Atlanta to perform in Pearl Cleage’s Blue for an Alabama Sky. That began a very special working relationship and friendship that continues to this day,” Rashad said. “We went on to do five productions, from Medea, Everybody’s Ruby, A Raisin in the Sun, August Wilson’s Gem the Ocean, and Steel Magnolias. I’ve worked with him more than any other single director,” she added.
Acknowledging Bishops’s passion, dedication, and devotion to theater, Rashad knew how much Bishop meant to Leon and True Colors.
“I accept this is as a real honor,” Rashad said.
Bishop sadly passed away on April 28, 2012, after complications from open heart surgery. When asked if she was still here today, what would you want to tell her? Rashad responded with a simple, “Thank You.”
Rashad, who feels the impact of what Leon has accomplished, stated that “he created theatre in Atlanta that people owned.” She also mentioned that both Leon and Bishop had “some of the most innovative programmings I have ever been a part of, I’ve ever witnessed.” With Leon being the Artistic Director of the Alliance Theater Woodruff Arts Center for many years, Rashad stated that Leon had a small theater downstairs, a large stage, and even a theater for children.
“He created a theater that was theater for people because that has been his concept, his understanding, his experience is that theater brings people together,” Rashad said. “To me, that was significant, and he carried that thinking into True Colors.”
While Rashad has done many plays with Leon, her acting career has expanded across many other roles consisting of Dream Girls, Creed, Creed II, For Colored Girls, Good Deeds, and more.
She began her career in her hometown of Houston, Texas, at the age of 11-years-old.
Rashad always felt like she wasn’t apart of her family because she didn’t feel “beautiful.”
“I thought, my mother was certainly beautiful, and my father was very handsome, and I thought that my sister and brother were very good looking, but I didn’t think I was pretty or beautiful,” Rashad admitted.
Rashad’s uniqueness earned her her very first role. Her teachers liked the quality of her voice and at last, was chosen to play the mistress of ceremonies for a Music Wide Festival for the elementary schools in Houston. Rashad, who rehearsed every day before and after school had no time for the playground. When it was getting closer to showtime, her teachers had taken her shopping and picked her out a dress, socks, shoes, and flower Tiara crown. On show day, her hair was covered in Shirley Temple curls, and the spotlight was on Rashad. “I couldn’t see any of the people in the audience, and I didn’t have to read the script, because I knew by heart,” Rashad said. She spoke to the light, and when the show was over, parents were coming up to her, saying, “There she is. There’s the little girl who spoke so beautifully, isn’t she beautiful?” It was that moment that Rashad knew she wanted to do acting for a living. As the years flew by, the beauty she yearned for was not in her looks, but communicating from the heart. “That is why I’m an actor,” she said.
Do The Work
As to how she was able to stand the test of time in such a revolving industry door, Rashad said that she spent her time focusing on her work, not on how hard or impossible it may be. Because of this, Rashad’s resume continues to expand. “It seems to find me and finds me in different ways, and I am very grateful for that,” she said.
For rising Black actors and actresses, Rashad reminds them that “Life unfolds on its own time.” Rising stars must have faith in themselves and act for the right reasons. Being in the entertainment industry doesn’t just consist of spotlights, fans, and autographs. There are difficult aspects of the entertainment industry, which includes speaking up for gender and racial equality. Monique is one of the celebrities doing so in an industry where many people of color are underpaid and mistreated. To reach a status of consistent work, Rashad feels as though it will take years and years of hard work. She used Mahershala Ali and even the legend Denzel Washington as an example. “It didn’t come overnight, but it happened in its time,” she said.
“The Mother” of the Black Community
Coined as “The Mother” of the Black community at the 2010 NAACP Image Awards, Rashad’s passion for acting poured over into her daughter Condola Rashad. Condola, taken to The Nutcracker Ballet by Rashad’s sister Debbie Allen when she was two, began to party blu ray up and down the aisles. When she was three years old, Rashad took her daughter to see Alvin Ailey dancers backstage. “She looked at me and said, when is it going to be my turn?”
Shortly after, while playing the piano, Condola wanted her mother to get her a piano teacher, dancing teacher, and reading teacher. Condola, who was always a part of her mother’s work in some shape or form, wanted to be instructed and learn various aspects of the arts.
As mothers do, Rashad keeps her eyes on young talents who are keeping the arts going. “I met Susan Kelechi Watson when she was a student at Howard University after being invited to teach a semester of master classes there, and that was the same time I met Chadwick Boseman,” Rashad said. “I’m very taken with the young actors,” Rashad said.
“The Cosby Show”
Rashad is best-known for her role as Clair Huxtable on “The Cosby Show” which earned her Emmy Award nominations in 1985 and 1986. On the legacy of the show, Rashad said the series “demonstrated that people are more alike than different,” she said. “Given the opportunity, people are willing and wanting to embrace their likeness, and that is the greatest strength of the show.”
Balancing a career and family
While Rashad’s two children Condola Rashad and William Lancelot Bowles III are all grown up, she admits that she doesn’t have to make many adjustments to her hectic work schedule. Very liberated to her work, in her spare time, Rashad enjoys, spending time in nature, theatres, visiting museums, and reading books. Right now, Rashad is a fan of her Alpha Kappa Alpha’s soror’s book “A Source of Self Regard” by Toni Morrison. “It is brilliant. It is an anthology of different things she has written. It’s commentary she has made on her work. It is just magnificent,” she said.
Rashad has enjoyed playing roles such as Aunt Ester in August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean and Shelah in Tarell Alvin McCraney Head of Passes, she is starring in a new show called “David Makes Man” premiering on the OWN network and created by Tarell Alvin McCraney. “Most recently, I’ll be working on a film for Netflix, called “Jingle Jangle,” which stars Forest Whitaker and Anika Noni Rose,” Rashad said. Rashad said that she enjoyed playing Aunt Ester and Shelah, because both women are full, meaning that they both are engaged in spirituality and can connect with the audience.
Being disciplined in her work, Rashad has been able to work with great people, visit places, and enjoy surprises in which she experiences moments of discovery, inspiration, and a new understanding throughout production. On how she would like to be remembered, Rashad said, “Someone who has respected humanity and who tried through her work to bring humanity together.”