While most of America knows Phylicia Rashad for her television work – from playing Clair Huxtable opposite Bill Cosby's Cliff on the long-running NBC hit show, The Cosby Show, to her recent turn as Clairee in the highly-rated Lifetime Television version of Steel Magnolias -- the award-winning actress has had quite a versatile career.
Rashad has had roles in many top Broadway shows, including The Wiz, Dreamgirls and Jelly's Last Jam, and in 2004, she became the first African-American to win the Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play for her role as Lena Younger in the revival of Lorraine Hansberry's groundbreaking drama A Raisin in the Sun.
Now, Rashad is directing a new production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play at Connecticut's Westport Country Playhouse, and she recently spoke to TheaterMania about what drew her to this production of A Raisin in the Sun.
THEATERMANIA: Why did you want to direct this play?
PHYLICIA RASHAD: I was approached by Mark Lamos, the artistic director of the Westport Country Playhouse, and he said to me, "I know you've done this play, but you know how it is for the classics; there's always more you can find." So, I agreed to do it.
TM: What is it about this play that speaks so strongly to the audience?
PR: It's a good story about family, which never goes out of style. That's always meaningful.
TM: As a director, what have you found to be the biggest challenges of the play?
PR: For us, the biggest challenge is the time frame we had to get this ready. The first day I told the cast we would have "fun in a hurry," because you don't have the luxury of even four weeks of rehearsal here like you do on Broadway.
TM: How has it been directing Lynda Gravatt as Lena?
PR: The first time I performed this play, I was at Howard University. I was Ruth and she was Lena -- so this is so much fun to revisit the piece with her.
TM: You made your directorial debut with the Seattle Repertory Theatre's production of August Wilson's Gem of the Ocean in 2007, a play you also starred in on Broadway. Five years later, are you more comfortable in the director's role?
PR: I think I am, or at least that's the observation of someone who's with me that's watched me do this a few times. As a director, there's so much to learn and so much to do. Having worked in theater for so many years, I knew about what a director does, but I just never had to do them before. As an actor you give yourself completely to the development of your character and the relationship to the other characters in the play. As a director you must pay attention to every detail — how they're dressed, what the set is like, what color the wall is. Everything is important. It's an expanded experience.