When Phylicia Rashad first agreed to direct Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, an August Wilson play dealing with racial exploitation in the recording industry in 1920s Chicago, she mused about the way in. The answer, she heard herself say, was music.
At first, she took that literally.
“What I’ve discovered in rehearsing is the play itself is the music,” Rashad says, speaking from her dressing room at the Mark Taper Forum just before the start of tech rehearsals. The production is currently in previews at the downtown venue and opens Sunday, Sept. 11. “The play is like a symphony — with movements, key changes, time changes, tempo changes. That’s incredible!”
Although best known for playing Clair Huxtable on The Cosby Show, Rashad, 68, has built a remarkable career as a stage actress. In 2004, she became the first African-American to win a Tony for lead actress in a play for A Raisin in the Sun. The next year, she earned another nomination for Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean, a role she created in 2003 at the Taper.
But since 2007, Rashad has been quietly leveraging her acting experience into a new career phase — as a theater director increasingly respected for nuanced productions that bring out the richness of the underlying text. She has shown particular affinity for the works of Wilson, whom she calls “an inspired playwright.”
In her professional evolution, Rashad has found a ready partner in the Taper, for whom she has directed three previous plays, including Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone in 2013. Center Theatre Group, which oversees the Taper along with the Ahmanson and the Kirk Douglas theaters, has produced nine of Wilson’s 10 plays throughout its history. Known collectively as the Century Cycle, the pieces address the African-American experience throughout each decade of the 20th century. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, which comes third historically, received a Tony nomination for best play in 1985.
“It is poetic text. It’s vibrant. It’s true. It’s subtle. It’s oh so subtle,” Rashad says. “It’ll be 2 in the morning and the text wakes me up and says, Come here. Look at me. Study me. You find things you’ve been listening to but didn’t hear.”
She cites the character of Toledo, played by Glynn Turman, a piano player whose ex-wife left him years before. The musician refuses to criticize her, calling himself a fool for failing to meet her needs.
“He really says he loved her more than anything without saying those words. He can’t say anything bad about her to this day. What she did was very hurtful to him, and he took it onto himself and made it his fault, not hers.”
Michael Ritchie, artistic director of Center Theatre Group, calls Rashad “one of the most prepared directors I’ve ever worked with. There is rarely a question you can ask her about the play, about a scene, about intentions, where she does not have the answer,” he says.
In a recent rehearsal, Rashad gently corrected an actor from memory when he misdelivered a line. From time to time she would call out “Hold” and stride forward from the back of the theater with a suggestion: “What would happen if you don’t get up?” Another time she whispered direction in a cast member’s ear without pausing the scene, guiding him to a new position to observe the effect.
“Phylicia does not speak unless she has something worth saying,” Ritchie says. “And so she has this great ability to allow the creative process to unfold, for a freedom to be in the room. And yet there is a center to it that will keep it focused.”
In person, Rashad has what is often called “presence,” radiating tranquility even after emerging from the crucible of L.A. traffic. When she describes the character of Ma — a real-life singer who describes the blues as “a way of understanding life” — portrayed by Lillias White, it’s difficult not to imagine Rashad talking about herself: “She knows what she’s doing. She knows her art form, she knows where it came from. That’s why she’s not willing to have it changed for the sake of commercialism. She knows what it is and what it means.”
Rashad still seems to define herself primarily as an actress rather than a director. Next year, she’ll star in the Taper’s production of Head of Passes. “I don’t sit around thinking of directing things,” she says when asked what dream projects remain on her horizon. “People call me and say, come do this. I never imagined this for me.” But, she says, “It’s very exciting for me to engage with actors in this way. It’s thrilling.”
(One matter Rashad won’t discuss with the press: the numerous sexual assault allegations against her former co-star Bill Cosby. She has previously defended him.)
Ritchie plans to complete the Century Cycle during his tenure by producing Fences, Wilson’s magnum opus and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for drama — and then start the cycle over. Rashad would be an obvious choice to helm the project, but he doesn’t plan to stop there.
“Not only with August Wilson, not only with African-American plays — I am interested in whatever plays she wants to direct,” he says.
For now, Rashad seems content taking “the Inception elevator ride” into Wilson’s script, which she says doesn’t require flashy touches to bring its themes and characters fully embodied to the stage.
“It’s life,” she says. “You don’t try to manipulate it. You don’t work for contrivance. It’s there. You just have to find it.”