Some actresses are truly a delight to watch in anything they do. Actresses who are such dedicated thespians that you feel privileged whenever you have the opportunity to witness their performances. Actresses who hone their craft to such perfection that their execution is detailed and delightful to behold. For me, one of those actresses is the fabulous, Tony Award-winning Ms. Phylicia Rashad.
Rashad made history when she became the first African-American actress to win a Tony Award for a dramatic role, that of Lena Younger in Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun.” She also stunned audiences with her impressive performance of Aunt Esther in August Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean.” In both of these Broadway shows, she played a gentle, loving, matriarchal type of role.
As of May 26, she will be playing another mother, but not of a type that is her usual fare. This character is definitely also no Clair Huxtable: She is Violet Weston, a pill-popping, sharp-tongued mother of three in Tracy Letts’ Pultizer Prize-and 2008 Tony Award-winning drama at the Music Box Theatre, “August: Osage County.”
Prior to beginning rehearsals, Rashad took the time to sit down with the AmNews at Sardi’s restaurant, and in this legendary Broadway eatery, where her caricature also hangs, she talked about her upcoming role as Violet Weston and how she will approach the character.
Interviewing Rashad was quite an amazing experience. Her professionalism and her dedication to her craft are very evident, as this seasoned actress takes the time to ponder each question about her role and her approach and responds with a heartfelt, honest answer. She makes one appreciate the process that great actors go through to become a character. It was wonderful to get even a peek into the mind of an actress who consistently delivers stellar performances.
Rashad became familiar with Violet Weston and “August: Osage County” when she sat in the audience and saw the show over a year ago. She watched as John Cullum, who had played her husband in “Cymbeline,” took the stage as the father in this play. “When I saw this play, I marveled at its complexities and the cast that brought it to life.”
Focusing on Violet and developing the character, Rashad said, “What I like to do as an actor is to find the heart of the human being. Some hearts reveal themselves easier than others. This is a woman that has given birth to three children, and there’s one that she’s particularly fond of. I haven’t understood her particular choices. I’ve got to understand her choices as a human being; in order to understand that, I need to understand her heart. It’s not something I’m used to articulating in this way. It happens. It begins to reveal itself, and sometimes it’s not in rehearsal.
“It could reveal itself when I’m in the grocery store or picking up dry cleaning or washing a dish or frying an egg. It occurs in its time. I allow it to happen and I hold it. The way people do with themselves. A character is a human being just like you and me, and so I want to find the heart of that human being so I can understand.”
The role of Violet has previously been portrayed by Deanna Dunagan and Estelle Parsons. I asked Rashad, is there a challenge to do a role you are not originating? Are you trying to duplicate your predecessor or make it your own?
“The challenge is not so much to do with thinking about how to be alike or different from a predecessor in a role. The challenge is to move as deeply as you can into your own understanding and work with actors who have been performing this for so long. To hear and feel their rhythms, to meld with their rhythms and to be on that same level with them–so that their work is not disturbed–that’s the challenge,” Rashad shared.
Anna D. Shapiro is the play’s director and someone Rashad had not worked with before; someone she is quite excited to have the opportunity to work with now. Remarking on the way she will work with this director, the veteran actress said, “We’ll be meeting each other and learning languages with each other for the first time, and it’s very exciting to step into new territory. When I saw the show I loved it, so I look forward to this.
“Some directors have loosely formed concepts of what it should be. Other directors have it etched very strongly in their consciousness of what a thing should be. My experience has been that they look to see where you are and what you are doing and help you to galvanize your energy. The director looks to galvanize all of the creative energies. Actors work differently, it’s extremely personal. Every actor has a different way of approaching one’s work, and for that reason, there will be a validity in all of them. A director will take that and help it to move in alignment with the vision that is there.”
The cast of “August: Osage County” currently includes: Elizabeth Ashley, Guy Boyd, John Cullum, Johanna Day, Kimberly Guerrero, Brian Kerwin, Madeleine Martin, Mariann Mayberry, Michael Milligan, Sally Murphy, Troy West and Frank Wood.
Tickets can be purchased at Telecharge.com or by calling (212) 239-6200.Those outside the New York metro area should call (800) 432-7250.The Music Box Theatre is located at 239 West 45th Street.