True Beauty

Phylicia Rashad learned from an early age that the source of beauty is not external but comes from the heart

Actress and director Phylicia Rashad grew up in a family of artists and performers. Her mother, Vivian Ayers, was an artist, poet, and playwright, and had been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Her older brother, Tex, is a jazz musician and composer. Her younger sister, Debbie Allen, became an accomplished actress and choreographer.

Rashad turned out to be the most acclaimed of them all. Best known for her role as Clair Huxtable on the iconic television program The Cosby Show, she has had a storied career on the stage as both an actor and a director. She was also the first African American actress to win a Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play, in 2004, for her role as Lena Younger in A Raisin in the Sun.

Yet, growing up in Houston in a family of high achievers immersed in a world of art and entertainment that values physical beauty, Rashad felt like an ugly duckling.

“For me, beauty was not an attribute that I possessed,” says Rashad. “But everyone else in my family did, in my mind. So you can imagine what that felt like as I approached adolescence.”

That changed when she was 11 and was chosen to be the mistress of ceremonies for a music festival representing all of the African American schools in the city.

“That night, when I stood in the spotlight for the first time, the lights were so bright I couldn’t see anything but the lights,” she remembers. “Because we had rehearsed so much, I didn’t even have to read the script, even though I held it in my hands. I knew it by heart. So I stood and I talked to the lights all night long. When it was over and the mothers were coming to collect their children, I heard a couple of them say, ‘Oh there she is! There’s the little girl who spoke so beautifully! Isn’t she beautiful!’

“When I heard that, I thought, ‘I’m going to be an actress! I’ll play to the lights and be beautiful all the time!’”

This concept of beauty—which years later Rashad was able to define as “communicating from the heart”—has been a driving force her entire life and has been the bedrock of her success. Rashad can be considered the opposite of a method actor, as her success is predicated on her inimitable ability to bring her deepest self into her roles.

Her search for roles that maximized this sort of beauty reached full realization in 2005, when she played Aunt Ester in August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean at the Walter Kerr Theater on Broadway. “Aunt Ester is a woman of great purpose, and her purpose is beyond her individual self,” says Rashad. “Her purpose is not self-advancement. Her purpose is to connect people to a deeper experience of the truth within themselves.”

The same can be said of Rashad. She is a truth seeker—and like it or not, as her fellow crew members have discovered, she is going to force you to uncover and reveal your truth.

“What makes Phylicia so great both as an actor and as a director is how she brings her humanness to every role, every production,” says Michael McElroy, a stage actor who has appeared in several productions with Rashad. “She has an honesty and a deep connection to the human experience that plays out in her work. So you are always living in truth with her. She demands that you bring your truth when you are working with her. And she brings her truth—unlike some people in the theater and show business, she is not ‘on.’ She just is.”

Finding truth has been a lifelong quest for Rashad. After high school, she went to Howard University, where she studied theater in the school of fine arts (she later taught some classes there).

Her acting career began on Broadway, and her extensive credits include Dreamgirls, The Wiz, August: Osage County, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

In 1983, Rashad made the move to television with her first regular role, on the soap opera One Life to Live. But it was her next role that catapulted her not only into TV fame but also into the role of America’s ultimate mom.

In 1984, Rashad was cast as Clair Huxtable, Cliff Huxtable’s wife on the Emmy Award–winning The Cosby Show. For the next eight years—a total of 195 episodes—Rashad was the matriarch of an upper-middle-class family who happened to be 
African American. In this role, she was also a practicing attorney. The Cosby Show was one of three shows in television history to be No. 1 in the Nielson ratings for five straight years (All in the Family and American Idol are the others). It was a groundbreaking show and a groundbreaking role.

Today, 30 years after the show debuted (it also aired for five years in the mid-1990s, retitled Cosby, with Cosby and Rashad playing a different married couple), its power in having changed hearts and minds is undeniable. Oprah Winfrey once said that Barack Obama probably would not have become president were it not for The Cosby Show, because of the way in which it broke down perceptions of African Americans.

When asked for her take on the show’s impact, Rashad was ready.

“Let me make my own statement about the power of The Cosby Show,” she says. “It extends beyond America. The Cosby Show was the best public relations this country has ever had abroad. In recent years I have encountered people from different parts of the world who grew up watching this show, and what they have to say is amazing. One of those people was Nelson Mandela. He said to me, ‘Thank you. I watched your show when I was on Robben Island. I watched it with my guard. It softened him.’”
Rashad paused to let that sink in.

“I have encountered people of African descent from other parts of the world. Once, a woman from Germany came up to me with tears in her eyes. She said that there was nothing that we, meaning people like her of African descent growing up in Germany, had to relate to. We felt like outsiders, she said. And then this show came. It changed how people felt about Africans there—and it changed how she felt about herself.

“Then, years after the show ended, I went to South Africa for a conference of former heads of state of African nations. At this conference, there were young people [African Americans] who had come to the conference from the United States. They were getting ready to go into practices of law and other professional fields. And several of those young people, said, ‘I’m doing what I’m doing now because of that show.’

“It never ceases to amaze me how people feel about that show to this day. Its influence goes well beyond the confines of racial tension in America.”

Yet, despite the success of The Cosby Show in upending stereotypes of African Americans, it can be argued that it did not have a significant long-term impact on bringing more positive images of African Americans onto television and movie screens. Who are the Huxtables of today?

Rashad, while not wanting to point a finger at Hollywood, acknowledges that she’s been disappointed.

“Why aren’t there shows like that anymore?” she says.

Instead of excoriating Hollywood for dropping the ball on producing more diverse programming, Rashad prefers to advocate for more shows with characters who are “human.”

In recent years, as her box office and artistic clout has grown, she has been increasingly able to find roles in productions that center around characters whose humanity—in all its glory and its flaws—takes center stage.

Rashad has discovered that this quest for fully exploring what it means to be human can be best realized by directing. An actor can express his or her character’s individual truth. But to most fully connect people—actors and audience—to the human experience, she wanted to have the ability to explore the inner life of all of the characters in a production. She likens the role of the director to that of a CEO. And she credits the late Geoffrey Holder, director of The Wiz (she played a munchkin in the original Broadway production in the late 1970s), for leading her to the C-suite of show business.

“I was also the understudy for Glinda, the Good Witch of the South,” she says. “And in one of the rehearsals, Geoffrey said to us that every dancer should think in terms of becoming a choreographer. And every choreographer should think in terms of becoming a director. Every actor should think in terms of becoming a director. And every director should think in terms of becoming a producer. He was giving us a greater vision, not only of who we are, but of what we can be.”
In fact, Holder was defining leadership.

“When you’re acting, the focus will be on that immediate work, of discovering who that character is,” she says. “But when you direct, you must look at the whole of any production, from the actors to the set design to wardrobe and costume. If it’s a musical, there’s composition. If there’s dancing, there’s choreography. There are many, many elements. So, in other words, now you’ve moved into a position of oversight, into a position of holding a vision and galvanizing all the energies around you to move into alignment with the vision, and hopefully leaving room for the collective energy to bring something that you hadn’t considered. That’s what the great directors do, just like the great CEOs or CFOs or COOs. They create an atmosphere in which everybody has to buy in. Everybody is a part of this creation and feels ownership. That creates a real team—and then the work becomes fun.”

Nowadays, Rashad is focused primarily on directing. She has a stack of prospective scripts in her New York office. This spring she will be at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles directing Paul Oakley Stovall’s Immediate Family. Then in the late summer, she will be at La Jolla Playhouse directing Michael Benjamin Washington’s Blueprints to Freedom: An Ode to 
Bayard Rustin.
She has earned a reputation as a director with whom actors and others want to work, says Carl White, a Broadway producer and the owner of Martian Entertainment.

“Because she is an artist herself, she can direct actors with ease and skill, and interpret the intention of the playwright,” he says. ”But even more than that, people are attracted to her core personality. She is thoughtful—she understands where people are coming from and she approaches the stage in that manner. She doesn’t say, ‘I want it my way.’ She brings people out and gets their input. She’s a calm presence in the eye of the storm on a set. That’s comforting and refreshing and brings out the best in everyone.” DW

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