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."
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.
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."
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.