Cat On A Hot Tin Roof’s Phylicia Rashad talks about her many mothers with Matthew Amer.
My first introduction to actress Phylicia Rashad came two decades ago as a young boy, when watching 80s American sitcom The Cosby Show. It was a weekly family ritual to sit down and watch the happy, warm, well-adjusted Huxtable family, of which she played the matriarch, as they laughed their way past any obstacle in their journey through life.
When we meet, 20 years down the line, I am in awe, not because I am meeting this childhood icon, but because Rashad is as effortlessly graceful, elegant, intelligent and polite a person as you could hope to meet. At points in our conversation, it is like listening to a seasoned storyteller; these are not just answers, these are M&S answers, with such thought and delivery behind them.
Somewhat unbelievably, Rashad, aged 69, is only now making her West End debut, reviving a role she originally played opposite fellow London cast member James Earl Jones on Broadway, that of the matriarch of a very different family in Tennessee Williams’s Cat On A Hot Tin Roof. The American stage veterans are the only survivors of that successful cast, with British actor Adrian Lester and Hollywood’s Sanaa Lathan among the new London cast.
With one run of Williams’s classic already completed, Rashad is still trying to find her character, to get to grips with her on all levels. “I’m always looking for something else,” she tells me. “It’s like people. Do you ever know someone really? If someone says I know him like the back of my hand, is that really true? I don’t think so.”
There is no sense of complacency from this seasoned actress, no feeling of retreading old ground. Just one new cast member, she tells me, would give the performance a different complexion; an almost entirely new cast makes it akin to a different project. “We will always continue to refine ourselves in performance,” she says, as if the notion of doing anything else is absurd. “We’ll be doing that to the end.”
The play, she says, is “about family, really. But beyond that there’s wisdom in it, and it comes in the most unusual ways, in the most unexpected ways.”
“There’s wisdom in it, and it comes in the most unusual ways, in the most unexpected ways”
Williams’s famous play is the tale of a turbulent family in which Big Daddy has cancer, though that information has been kept from both him and his wife, Big Mama, who is played by Rashad. As the family comes together to celebrate his birthday, the relatives in the know try to position themselves positively in his eyes, with their thoughts firmly on financial gain.
The show features an all black cast, replicating the decision made when the production was staged in the US. Though it gives the piece a handy hook, Rashad is not convinced that it affects the themes within the play. “[Williams] wrote about a specific people and he put that language on the stage, but when you look past those readily discernable distinctions you see something that’s very universal. That’s the wisdom I’m talking about that applies to all of humanity.”
Rising above and seeing past ethnicity is a topic we are drawn back to again and again. In 2004, Rashad became the first African American to win the Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play, for her performance in A Raisin In The Sun. Though shocked that it had taken so long for that ground to be broken, she tells me, “I didn’t make much of it in terms of ethnicity; it was more about the art. There were very fine actresses – there always are – nominated in that category, very fine actresses, and I considered it a privilege and a mark of distinction to be acknowledged with that group of women.”
Though Rashad won the award, it was the presence of Sean Combs, better known as hip hop artist P Diddy, in the cast that originally caught the headlines. “I think, had he been other than the way he was in his approach to the work, it might not have been pleasurable,” Rashad admits, “but he knew what he knew and he also knew what he didn’t know, and he was very open to the experience of learning. He worked so diligently. His work ethic is beyond compare; I mean, second to none. He puts himself in it and gives himself fully.”
Mention of her more recent Broadway appearance in the multi award-winning Steppenwolf production of August: Osage County is met with an “ooo” sound much like a ghost sighing ominously. “That was an experience,” she says.
As with The Cosby Show, A Raisin In The Sun and Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, August: Osage Country found her playing a matriarch, but the confrontational, drug-addicted Violet Weston was a completely different proposition to her many other motherly roles. “Usually,” Rashad says, “when I’m working with characters, it gets into the body and the body begins to move in a different way, and the voice takes on its own characteristics of that human being. She wasn’t a person I wanted to carry past the backstage area. I didn’t want to take myself so deeply into her psyche; there was too much going on there.”
“I didn’t make much of it in terms of ethnicity; it was more about the art”
Instead Rashad, with decades of experience behind her, found an entirely new way of working that would allow her to deliver what the author intended but still stay a safe distance from her character. “It’s like working in a complete way, with detachment. That detachment was for the protection of my own being,” she laughs.
“There comes a time when, as a result of working to refine yourself,” she continues, “your understanding of your instrument as an actor… you work with it and then all of a sudden, one day, there’s this little opening and you think ‘wow, I can go there?’ More and more acting becomes not so much about ‘doing’ as it was when I was a younger actress. At that point it was all about how you ‘do’ a thing. Now it’s more contemplative, it’s understanding what’s behind, what’s underneath.”
As a person, not just an actress, Rashad is contemplative. During the entire time I spend with her, she never seems rushed, never hurries into an answer, is always thoughtful but never restrained about what she says.
Having talked about her recent stage outings, I test the waters of The Cosby Show. I am never sure how performers will react to dragging up performances from decades past. “That was an amazing time,” she says, dispelling my worries and lingering on “amazing” for longer than I would have thought possible. “We were always happy. We worked well together and it was just eight years of the best.”
The series told the simple story of an African American family going about their daily business, the kids being kids and the adults being adults. It was a simple, charming, funny series that the whole family could watch together. What I didn’t realise as a child was the pull Bill Cosby, the American comedian who created and starred in the show, had to recruit guest stars including Sammy Davis Jr, Stevie Wonder, Christopher Plummer and Placido Domingo into his series.
“Imagine it,” Rashad says, with a sense of awe, “just imagine it”. She has the same sense of wonder in her voice as she tells me more about her long time co-star, Cosby: “I worked with him for 12 years and didn’t know there were hundreds of people he had sent to school, hundreds. He had paid their college tuition.” As she describes more of his charitable work, every time her colleague and friend is mentioned, she refers to him as Mr Cosby. It is unusual, I suggest, to address a friend in such a fashion. “I can call him Bill,” she answers, “he won’t mind. But I like calling him Mr C and Mr Cosby because he is a distinguished human being and he merits that respect.”
“[Racism] is a trick that humanity plays on itself. It creates suffering for everybody, especially for those people who think they’re on top”
It is probably no coincidence that Rashad, whose most memorable performances have come in matriarchal roles, was also so influenced by her own mother, the poet Vivian Ayers. When I ask about her childhood, quickly, as our allotted time is running out, she generously takes her time divulging her full family history.
“My mother is a self-styled human being who’s done very well. She described herself to me once as a little girl sitting on the swing, flying, going as high as she could go, looking high into the sky with big ideas in Chester, South Carolina, a little mill town.”
Rashad’s parents met in Washington, where her father was a dental student and her mother was a typist. When they moved to Houston to be near his family, cracks began to appear as the in-laws did not understand Ayers’s unconventional ways. Rashad’s parents divorced when she was six, but both continued to live near each other for the children’s sake. “You could see that they loved each other deeply, but it was an impossibility. Painful as it was, they allowed us to love them both. Both of our parents supported us through everything.”
As Rashad hit her teenage years, Ayers decide to move away from the segregation and racism of Houston, taking her daughters to Mexico City. It was a move that was not met with total approval. “I was 13 years old. I was going into the eighth grade. I was in Junior High School. I was going to have a boyfriend. What the Sam Hill is this, going to Mexico City?” says Rashad, sounding every inch the disgruntled teenager.
This reaction may have been because Rashad and her siblings, who include sister and Cat On A Hot Tin Roof director Debbie Allen, had not always been fully aware of the segregation in which they lived because of the efforts of their mother. To her children, she described everything and everywhere they couldn’t go as simply a private club of which they weren’t members. This worked until Rashad was old enough to read, when she became aware of a set of drinking fountains, one marked ‘For Coloured’, the other ‘For White Only’. “I thought ‘I wonder what that water tastes like. I’m gonna see.’ So I went over to the White Only water fountain and tasted the water and I knew humanity had tricked itself, because the water tasted the same.”
“[Racism] is a trick that humanity plays on itself. It creates suffering for everybody, especially for those people who think they’re on top. Such suffering and it’s needless and we’re capable of so much more.”
There is sadness when Rashad discusses race and segregation, not anger. Maybe this comes from Ayers, whose thought and writing was so inspirational it was hung up at NASA. Maybe it is part of the contemplation and calmness that emanates from Rashad. One thing is certain; I shan’t be closing with a flippant question about how she will be spending her Christmas. I imagine it will involve family.