Director's Role

Actress Phylicia Rashad is directing August Wilson's "Fences" at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven. (Rick Hartford, / November 15, 2013)

Diners and waitresses beam upon recognizing the familiar face of the woman eating a short stack of blueberry pancakes and sipping peppermint tea at an off-the-highway eatery in New Haven.

"What play are you in?" asks the gentleman as he catches the eye of the woman being interviewed.

"I'm directing August Wilson's 'Fences' at Long Wharf Theatre," says Phylicia Rashad, known widely as the mother Clair Huxtable in the hit TV series "The Cosby Show", which ran from 1984 to 1992.

"We'll be sure to see it," he says smiling, tipping his head as he starts to leave.

"And I'll make sure he gets there," says his wife as an aside.

The warm response is a common reaction from people, even after nearly 20 years since the beloved series ended and since Rashad, now 65, has gone on to perform a wide range of roles from playing a 285-year-old woman in Wilson's "Gem of the Ocean" on Broadway to her Tony Award-winning performance as Lena in the revival of Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun."

But in New Haven Rashad is exploring a relatively recent role for herself: director.

Last year she staged "A Raisin in the Sun" at the Westport Country Playhouse. But with "Fences:" she is working on a play from an artist whose work she knows well — and one Connecticut audiences do, too: August Wilson, whose 10-play cycle chronicles decade-by-decade the African-American experience in the 20th century.

Many of Wilson's plays began as staged readings at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center's National Playwrights Conference in Waterford where its artistic director Lloyd Richards had mentored the new writer. Many of the plays would later premiere at Yale Repertory Theatre, staged by Richards, who was artistic director of the Rep and dean of the School of Drama. The plays would then be developed in a circuit of other regional theaters, guided by producer Ben Mordecai of the Yale School of Drama, until they reached Broadway.

"Fences" was the most successful of all the Cycle's plays and it starred James Earl Jones, Mary Alice and Courtney B. Vance when it opened on Broadway in 1987 where it won the first of Wilson's Pulitzer Prizes and Tony Awards.

Rashad was there opening night and she says the excitement was extraordinary. "At the time 'The Cosby Show' was number one and when I saw [the production] I thought, 'Oh, I want to do something like that.'"

Rashad's first August Wilson show was still years off but she did have an occasion to audition for Lloyd Richards during that period. She didn't get the gig but "he was so kind and he looked at me —and he would really look at you and made you feel he was really seeing you — and he said, 'You have the soul of an artist.' I'll never forget that. You don't have to write that."

Theme Of Freedom

"Fences" is set in 1957 and Troy Maxson, a former player of the Negro Baseball League, is 53 years old " which means he was born in 1904," says Rashad, "and that is the year in which 'Gem of the Ocean' takes place [which begins Wilsons 10-play Cycle]. It's so interesting how things connect."

The theme of freedom threads through the fabric of Wilson's plays.

When Troy Maxson arrives from Alabama to Pittsburgh, where most of the plays are set, he thinks he would be living a free life, says Rashad. But he found poverty and racism and his quashed dreams had made him bitter and angry. When Troy's son Cory, an intelligent and dutiful young man with good grades, has an opportunity to go to college on a sports scholarship, a battle rages between father and son.

"There is an unbridgeable gap in understanding," says Rashad. "Troy cannot envision what the son sees — and it's right there in front of him — but he can't see it because of what his own experience was. His vision is trapped inside of that. And college is not in his frame of reference."

Rashad speaks in awe-struck terms about Wilson, who died at the age of 60 in 2005, shortly after the final play of the cycle, "Radio Golf," premiered in New Haven. "We marvel at the breadth and the scope of his work. No one ever did this before."

Rashad participated in a recent project, the recording of all 10 of the plays where she recreated her performance as the Cycle's spiritual matriarch Aunt Ester in "Gem of the Ocean.'' She also directed "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" for the archival taping of the series, which will be available free for scholars and students.

"To hear and experience these plays without staging and wardrobe and in the context of the sound of the text alone really puts his philosophy and poetry ahead of everything else."