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Condola Rashad, star-bred and 'Cosby' trained

The daughter Phylicia Rashad and NFL luminary Ahmad Rashad has chops of her own now

By Steven Zeitchik

Tribune Newspapers

September 28, 2013

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NEW YORK — When Condola Rashad was a little girl, her mother would often take her to work. The youngster would sit and play or watch curiously as the woman she called Mom scurried about her job.

It was similar to the experience of many children, with one difference: Rashad's mother is Phylicia Rashad, who played mom Clair Huxtable on "The Cosby Show."

"She'd be super busy at rehearsal and I would be in her dressing room or somewhere backstage," Rashad said. "From as far back as I can remember, I would just sit right there and watch the process, not the red carpets and the glitz like some kids do but the work itself."

Condola Rashad is speaking from her own dressing room at New York's Richard Rodgers Theatre. The 26-year-old is a few hours from stepping on stage in her first Broadway leading role in one of the most famous plays ever written — as Juliet in the David Leveaux-directed revival "Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet," opposite Orlando Bloom.

After a pair of Tony-nominated supporting parts (Horton Foote's "The Trip to Bountiful" and Lydia R. Diamond's "Stick Fly") and a role in a highly regarded off-Broadway ensemble piece (Lynn Nottage's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Ruined," for which she won a Theatre World Award), Rashad is moving into a limelight her mother knows well.

Those early years on the "Cosby" set, the younger Rashad noted, have come in handy. "I was a little kid, but I was still seeing the first day or a reading and then the fast-forward of bringing the character to life," she said. "I didn't even know what it was called, but what I was learning was the whole process of investigating the character."

The actress has a kind of unpretentious bubbliness about her that might be thought at odds with a brooding romantic melodrama. But she said she tries to use it to her advantage.

"Romeo and Juliet" — the play hasn't been on Broadway in 36 years — adds a number of modern flourishes (knife fights instead of duels, Romeo on a motorcycle, an interracial couple) but retains Shakespeare's language and dramatic architecture. Rashad, though, plays her part with a certain lightness.

"The character can easily fall into the woe-is-me victim, and I don't think she is," the actress said. "Or at least I didn't want to play it that way. I wanted to play it light for a lot of the play, almost like a romantic comedy, because if you don't do that then no one will care when it does get dramatic."

Indeed, Rashad is ethereal in spots, effervescent in others — particularly in the first of the two acts, offering some of the more famous readings with a youthful twinkle.

Leveaux said he cast Rashad because he wanted a sunnier, more modern presence.

The director also thought that the years spent on her mother's sets gave Rashad a particular set of qualifications. "You could tell immediately this is someone who comes from a background being around actors, who has spent years observing the right way it's done and also has a conscious understanding of the work ethic," he said. (Reviews have been mixed on the show, but praise has often been reserved for Rashad: Variety noted that "the poetry suffers in this busy revival" but called its female lead an "ingénue stunner.')

Rashad grew up in New York, with her famous mother and equally well-known dad, the NFL broadcaster and former player Ahmad Rashad. (Her parents divorced in 2001 when Condola, named after her paternal grandmother, was in high school.)

She didn't come to acting easily. As a child, Rashad spent 10 years studying classical piano and for a long time thought music would be her calling. In high school she decided on acting and eventually attended CalArts' theater program, graduating in 2008.

While there, it was comedy that she said moved her — an ironic detail for someone who has acted almost exclusively in dramas on the New York stage. "In drama school you know there's always the typical people, the actress who only likes to do character stuff, or the nerd, or the hunk. And there's the girl who could cry at drop of hat. And I was never that girl," she said. "I'm not quite sure how this whole drama thing happened," she said, flipping her hair and laughing.

Rashad has dabbled in TV too — on "Smash," in the TV-movie remake of "Steel Magnolias." Nearly all have been dramas as well.

Rashad, who is not married, said she also channeled breakups into this part, particularly the heartbreak of her teenage years, which she said were typical. In general, she says she had a pretty conventional childhood, running track and coming home to family dinners, but she acknowledges that it was odd in one "Cosby"-ish respect: It's one thing to hang out with friends who know your parent is a celebrity. It's another to have them think of your mother as their mother, as any child of the '80s thought of Phylicia Rashad's tough-but-loving character.

"People would say to me, 'You know, your mom is my mom. And I'd say 'OK.' I didn't really know what to say. I didn't even watch 'The Cosby Show' growing up. I didn't see the reason. She was standing right there." Rashad laughed. "Mother overload."

She calls her mother "amazing" but added, 'You know, like all moms they can get on your nerves too." Rashad, it should be noted, is an only child.

Even at her new gig, it's impossible for the actress to avoid her mother. Pinned on a billboard backstage is a postcard advertising a staged reading of a play by Christina Ham called "Four Little Girls: Birmingham 1963" that Phylicia Rashad recently directed. ("I didn't put it up," Condola Rashad said. "No, really.)

Readers of a certain age who recall Ahmad Rashad's on-air proposal to Phylicia one Thanksgiving football broadcast might be surprised to hear that one outcome of that proposal is now a stage veteran. The young actress didn't spend much time in the broadcast booth with her father, though he would come to all of her plays, even those at CalArts, flying out to see even her smallest performance. Once, when she directed a show at the school, she found herself $600 short for production fees. She turned to her father. He agreed but, perhaps seasoned from years of negotiating with networks and sports teams, had a request: Do I get a producer credit?, he asked.

After "Ruined," Rashad spent time bartending in her native Brooklyn before landing the "Stick Fly" job, making time for auditions around her restaurant schedule. "You're not dealing with someone for whom it just fell into her lap," Leveaux said. "A lot of people with that upbringing would have gone there. But she wanted to make her own ladder."

Coincidentally, it's the parent-child relationship Rashad believes is the beating heart of "Romeo and Juliet."

"The way I see the play is not that Juliet kills herself because of Romeo but because she didn't think she had anything else," Rashad said. "There's one scene that tears me apart, where her parents say they're not proud of her and even call her a curse [word]. I mean, can you imagine what that does to a teenage girl?"

Actor Chuck Cooper, who is a friend of Phylicia Rashad and plays Juliet's father, Lord Capulet, in the show, called the younger Rashad "rigorous and relentless in the pursuit of really mining the text."

But Rashad said she's tried to downplay the work's significance. .

"People keep asking me how you're dealing with playing an icon. And the way I'm dealing with it is not thinking about it like that," she said, giving another laugh. "When someone plays a classic piece on the piano they don't think about how classic it is — they just play it. Juliet doesn't know she's an icon. She's just another teenager in love."

steve.zeitchik@latimes.com