This article was originally published November 23, 2004.
In June 2004, Phylicia Rashad became the first African-American woman to win the Tony Award as Best Actress in a Play, starring in a classic drama by a great African-American playwright—Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun. Now, five months later, she has returned to Broadway in a new play by another great African-American playwright.
The play is Gem of the Ocean, at the Walter Kerr Theatre. The playwright is August Wilson, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, for Fences and The Piano Lesson. And, although the new drama is set in 1904 — in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, where Wilson grew up—its subject, Rashad says, is as pertinent today as it was 100 years ago: "What is freedom? What does it mean to be free? When are you free? Are you free because somebody else says so? Are you free because of something written on a piece of paper? Or are you free because you recognize and remember the deepest, truest part of yourself?"
Gem of the Ocean is the ninth in Wilson's cycle of ten plays about the African-American experience in America, each of which has focused on a decade of the 20th century. It also stars Anthony Chisholm, LisaGay Hamilton and Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who was a Best Featured Actor Tony winner as Canewell in Wilson's Seven Guitars in 1996. The director is Kenny Leon, Rashad's director for A Raisin in the Sun.
In Gem of the Ocean, Rashad portrays Aunt Ester, who was an offstage character in Wilson's Two Trains Running and King Hedley II, and who in Gem of the Ocean is about to celebrate her 287th birthday. Wilson has said that the character dates from the early years of the 17th century; he has called her "the embodiment of all African-American tradition and wisdom." So how does an actor portray a 287-year-old woman who stands for something so crucial?
"First, you don't think about her age," says Rashad, who is perhaps best known for her eight television seasons on The Cosby Show. "What I'm looking for is her experience. Then everything else unfolds. Aunt Ester is so many things. She is the embodiment of the memories of the people who came across the Middle Passage," the slaves' horrible journey over the Atlantic from Africa. "She is very human. She is accessible. She is purposeful. She is spontaneous. She is strong and tender. And she can be a shameless flirt."
Acting in a Wilson play is very different, Rashad says, "because of the way he writes, because of what's inherent in his writing. He conveys the poetry, the natural rhythms, of his characters' speech. Everything — emotion, movement, thought, intention — is inherent in that rhythm. Actors sometimes like to dissect, to analyze, to do all those things actors are taught to do. But those things don't put me closer to this work's heart. I have to surrender all that. It's like going to a lake or a swimming pool. You just have to dive in, to immerse yourself. Working in his plays requires a different kind of skill. It's as if you would become a talking drum."
Each play in Wilson's cycle deals with the main idea confronting African Americans in its decade. Wilson has said that in Gem of the Ocean, that idea was "claiming your citizenship." In the first decade of the 20th century, he said, "African-Americans forged the way to determining what it meant to be a citizen and how we claim that citizenship. It was very difficult, because even though we were granted the rights of citizenship with the Emancipation Proclamation, it didn't always work out that way."
In the play, a character named Citizen Barlow comes to visit Aunt Esther because he is in spiritual turmoil. She helps him on his journey to redemption, partly on a magic boat made of paper that takes them to the City of Bones, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, where he must learn about himself and make up for a horrible thing he has done.
But despite the subject's seriousness, Rashad says, the play "is not heavily laden. It's organic. It moves. It has all the elements. All the juices. All the flavors."
Rashad was born in Houston, Texas, her father a dentist, her mother a poet and scholar. She graduated magna cum laude from Howard University in Washington, but she says that her love of the stage began years earlier.
"I was always carrying on in the backyard, pretending to be Sheena, queen of the jungle," she says. "When I was 11, I was selected as the mistress of ceremonies for a music festival in the city's schools. I stood in the spotlight for the first time. I couldn't see anything but the lights, and I spoke to the lights. When it was over, so many mothers looked at me as they left the auditorium, saying, 'Here's the little girl who spoke so beautifully—isn't she beautiful?' And it clicked—the idea that I could grow up and be an actress and be beautiful all the time."
But there was more to it. "What I could not say or realize at the time was that the beauty I felt had nothing to do with my hair or my dress or the socks I wore with lace on them," she says. "It was the beauty of communicating from the heart. That's what acting is for me."