By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 24, 2010; E02
Phylicia Rashad has an enviable knack for knowing when to say yes -- and no. Her canniest naysaying had to have occurred when she was the understudy for the role of Deena Jones in the original Broadway production of "Dreamgirls" and one day presented herself to its formidable director, Michael Bennett, to quit.
Frustrated by months of waiting in the wings, she'd called her own estimable resource, her mother, who advised her that it was time to fly. "I said, 'If I resign, I don't have another job to go to,' " Rashad recalls. "And she said, 'If you stay there, you may never have another job to go to!' "
It took guts for a semi-nobody to dictate the timing of her departure to an intimidating somebody like Bennett. "I told him, 'I'm not an understudy. I'm a leading lady. It's time for me to realize myself in my profession.' "
Of such nervy leaps of faith are careers made or broken. In the case of Rashad, who appears next month in the world premiere of "every tongue confess" at Washington's Arena Stage, a payoff did come: when she was offered a television role opposite a guy named Bill Cosby. "every tongue confess" will christen Arena's newest space, the Kogod Cradle, beginning Tuesday, Nov. 9; the renovated Arena Stage officially opened this weekend with preview performances of "Oklahoma."
Being the leading lady on "The Cosby Show" and later on "Cosby" made her rich and celebrated. And though TV stardom did not guarantee her other film and television projects -- "People wouldn't see me for things because they thought of Clair Huxtable," she says -- it eventually gave her entree to a quality of stage life that she'd always envisioned, an opportunity that has allowed her in mature middle age to amass one of the most impressive collections of Broadway parts of any actor of her generation: among them, Aunt Ester in August Wilson's "Gem of the Ocean"; Big Mama in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof"; and a Tony-winning turn as Lena Younger in "A Raisin in the Sun."
The fame and freedom to venture wherever a good role materialized is how the 62-year-old Rashad ended up in the cast of "every tongue confess," the Cradle's eagerly anticipated inaugural act by highly regarded Yale Drama School graduate Marcus Gardley. Her presence significantly raises the profile of a milestone event for Arena, which also features such proven actors as Crystal Fox, Leslie Kritzer and Jason Dirden.
The director is Kenny Leon, with whom Rashad worked on "Gem" and "Raisin" and whom she instinctively trusts. Leon, the go-to director these days for epic African American plays and the big stars they can attract, guided Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in the revival of Wilson's "Fences" that won a bushel of Tonys in June. So when Leon called her about Gardley's play, the outcome was pretty much ordained.
"She knows I would only lead her to a good place," Leon says, by phone from his base in Atlanta. "And I know Phylicia has eight or nine ways to play any emotion. Her tool kit is full of so many different tools; she has scissors and scalpels and hammers. She can do it all. People don't realize that Clair Huxtable was just an interruption of her greatness."
Rashad's experience with the director made her decision easy about the Arena play, a blues- and gospel-inflected piece concerning a series of church burnings in the South in the 1990s. "He said to me, 'I want you to read this script and say yes,' " the actress is saying of Leon, over a plate of Chinese veggies in one of her favorite New York restaurants a block from Lincoln Center. She's traveled into Manhattan from her home in suburban Westchester to talk. In a crisp white blouse and dark slacks, the genteel Rashad seems uncannily ageless, so youthfully in sync with the character she played in the '80s that strangers on the street still call out to her.
"Spotted you a mile away!" a man in a security uniform exclaims when, after lunch, Rashad walks past him on West 65th Street. She smiles, triggering for such encounters what appears to be a reflexive radiance. "That's people saying thank you," she explains moments later.
From Bennett to Cosby to Leon, Rashad not only has spent a career holding her own with strong male figures, but also seems to have been able, when necessary, to check her own ego. She counts Cosby, for instance, as an important acting coach, even though she was the one more devoted to the craft of inhabiting a role.
"I learned a lot from Mr. Cosby," she says. "He gave me the greatest lesson. We were rehearsing for the filming of the pilot and he said to me, 'You work a lot in the theater, don't you?' I said, 'How did you know?' and he said, 'You always come in right on cue.' "
It wasn't a compliment, exactly. Cosby explained to her that on TV it might work better for her and her character to take a moment to reflect before registering a reaction. "Out of that," she says, "came that famous Clair Huxtable stare."
Rashad -- who kept the name of her third husband, former pro football player and sports broadcaster Ahmad Rashad, after their 2001 divorce -- has benefited all her life from influential mentors, starting with a free-spirited mother, Vivian Ayers, who now lives in South Carolina. Rashad was raised in segregated Houston; her mother and dentist father divorced when she was a child, but she doesn't recall that as traumatizing. "I didn't grow up around dysfunctional stuff," she observes. She and sister Debbie, who would become the director-choreographer Debbie Allen, stayed with their mother, a poet afflicted with wanderlust.
"When I was 13, my mother walked into the house and said, 'I've had it with this materialistic environment. We're moving!' " Off on a bus to Mexico City they went for one of the strangest and most enlightening chapters of her young life.
"We didn't speak a word of Spanish, and we didn't know a soul," she says, adding that rather than turning her inward, the exoticism of one temporary living situation after another opened her up. "All of a sudden, the world was a lot bigger," she says. "People were different, and yet they were the same."
Eventually they returned to Houston, where Rashad finished school before heading off to study theater at Howard University, her father's alma mater and the college he chose for her. "That was a time when you were told where you wanted to go," she says wryly. Nevertheless, she loved it.
A summer apprenticeship with New York's pioneering Negro Ensemble Company cemented her determination to earn a living on the stage, and several years later she would be sharing an apartment in Manhattan with her sister, as both began to make their way in the theater. Although she's burnished a reputation in straight drama, her breaks came in musicals: Then going by the name Phylicia Ayers-Allen, she was cast as a Munchkin and a field mouse in the 1975 hit "The Wiz."
"It was a good job, a great job," she recalls. "We were a big family. We celebrated birthdays together and we mourned each other's losses."
A stint on the soap opera "One Life to Live" would pay the bills. And then "The Cosby Show" altered her trajectory entirely. The theater, however, remained so steadfast for her over the years that the appeal rubbed off on her progeny: Daughter Condola Rashad played a starring role in the Manhattan Theatre Club premiere of "Ruined," Lynn Nottage's drama about rape in Africa, which won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize.
Now, the elder Rashad is letting her appetite and passion lead her to Washington. Taking on the work of an unknown writer is yet another leap of faith for an actress, though reputation is not utmost in Rashad's mind. "Most of the plays I've worked on in development were by playwrights I knew nothing about. So this is fine," she says.
For Gardley, Rashad's participation is kind of numbing. "It's one gift after another," he avers. For Rashad, it's one more step on a giant learning curve. "Let's just say that the theater is not for the faint of heart," she says, laughing. "This is the Olympics, okay?"
every tongue confess
by Marcus Gardley. Directed by Kenny Leon; lighting designer, Allen Lee Hughes; composer, Dwight Andrews. Featuring Phylicia Rashad. In the Kogod Cradle at Arena Stage Nov. 9-Jan. 2.