Director's Role

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

Rashad grew up — along with sister [actress and choreographer] Debbie Allen and brothers Hugh and Tex Allen — knowing poetry well. Rashad is the daughter of Vivian Ayers, a scholar, artist, playwright and Pulitzer Prize-nominated poet. ("I'm not going to tell you her age or she'll get mad.")

Ayers was the first African-American on the library staff of Rice University in Houston, was an associate of Nancy Hanks at the start of the National Endowment for the Arts and established the NEA's "Workshops in Open Fields," which became a model for community arts grass-roots arts programming. "I grew up in a family that valued education in a time when education was held in high regard."

"But I was also climbing tress and making mud pies, too," says Rashad.

The Fifties

Growing up in the '50s in Houston also gives her an appreciation of the decade "Fences" is set.

"I have many subtle sense memories of growing up then," she says. "I was visiting my mother some months ago and she has all the books we ever had and I opened one — it was a Childcraft book — and the smell from the pages transported me back to that time

"I also remember the way women dressed. People were more contained physically. Things were tight. But there was a beautiful elegance, too. I remember a dress I had and in the pattern of the fabric there were cherries and on the white collar that had a little red-and-green trim there would be embroidered a few cherries there, too. I remember sweaters with little pearls sewn on them and wool skirts that used to make me itch. And saddle Oxford shoes. I hated those shoes."

"I grew up in a totally different environment [from Troy]. I come from a lineage where the fathers were always present and education was very important." She says her grandfather was a fireman on the Southern Pacific Railroad, and every one of his 10 children went to college." (Rashad was a 1970 grad at Howard University.)

Rashad's own daughter, Condola Rashad, has made a name for herself as an actress, receiving two Tony Award nominations and currently starring on Broadway opposite Orlando Bloom in "Romeo and Juliet."

What's it like being the mother of such a talented person?

"It's like looking at someone you don't know,' says Rashad laughing. " Honestly, she grew up on the 'Cosby' set. I was a nursing mother so I took my child with me until it was time for her to enroll in first grade

"But I remember when she was 3 and I took her to see Alvin Ailey [American Dance Theatre] and she turned to me and said, 'When is it going to be my turn, Mommy? When do I get to be on stage?' She was always thinking like that and the first thing she asked for when she was old enough was instruction. 'I need a piano teacher, a voice teacher and a reading teacher.' She understood that [performing] was work and that it took discipline.

"My mother included us in everything, too," says Rashad. "She took us to lectures and exhibitions in museums, all kinds of programs. She knew we didn't understand a word of what was being said but she took us anyway. 'I knew you didn't understand it,' she would say, 'but that didn't mean you didn't deserve to be exposed to it.' My mother did a lot for us. We were growing up in Houston Texas at a time of legal segregation and she created a way of having us move through that without being psychologically impaired. I'm so grateful to have experienced life as I did as a child. So grateful."

Future Projects

Directing for Rashad isn't a specific career path but a series of found opportunities, she says.

"People call and extend an invitation to direct something and I say OK. I tend to be just in the work that I'm in and then move on."

Rashad says that at some point she would like to direct Chekhov and Shakespeare. As far as acting, she'd love to do Medea again, "but I have to have the right director. When you do the Greeks, you have to have someone who can get to the heart of the thing."

As for now Rashad will oversee the transfer to "Fences" to the McCarter Theater in Princeton, N.J. in January following its New Haven run. Then she says she will further develop Michael Benjamin Washington's play, "Blueprints to Freedom: An Ode to Bayard Rustin," about the architect to the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington. "Had Bayard Rustin been a straight man and not homosexual, he would not have been relegated to the shadows of history," says Rashad. "We're a funny group, humanity."

"FENCES'' plays the main stage at Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven. Previews begin  Nov. 27. The show opens Dec. 4 and continues through Dec. 22. Previews are Nov. 27 at 7 p.m.; Nov. 29 and Nov. 30 at 8 p.m.; Dec. 1 at 2 at 7 p.m.; Dec. 2 at 7 p.m. and opening night, Dec. 3, at 7:30. Regular performances are Tuesdays at 7 p.m.; Wednesdays at 2 and 8; Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m.; Saturdays at 3 and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 and 7 p.m. On Dec. 22 there is only a 2 p.m. performance. Tickets are $44.50 to $79.50, including service fees. Information: 203 787-4282 and www.longwharf.org.

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