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Where Are They Now: Phylicia Rashad
Topic Started: Dec 1 2007, 12:38 AM (499 Views)
Steve Frame
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Phylicia Rashad currently plays the mom in Shakespeare's 'Cymbeline,' playing at Lincoln Center, a far cry from Clair Huxtable on TV's 'The Cosby Show.' (Newsday / Ari Mintz)

BY FRANK LOVECE | Special to Newsday

The mom Phylicia Rashad plays in William Shakespeare's "Cymbeline" is a far cry from her Clair Huxtable on TV's "The Cosby Show." For one thing, she plots the death of her husband and stepdaughter so that her strutting-fool son can ascend to the throne of England. "Cymbeline" opens Sunday at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theatre.

Born in Houston to a dentist dad and a poet/arts-programmer mom, Rashad, 59, comes from something of an arts-programmed family: Sister Debbie Allen is a famed choreographer and director, brother Andrew is a musician, and brother Hugh is, well, a banker, but that's OK.

In 1972, Rashad joined the cast of the Broadway musical "Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death," then spent more than three years in the ensemble of "The Wiz," followed by a soap-opera stint on "One Life to Live." And then came her "Cosby" success, followed in 2004 by her performance in "A Raisin in the Sun," which made her the first African-American to win a Tony Award for best actress in a play. Married and divorced thrice - first to dentist William Lancelot Bowles, then to Victor Willis, lead singer of the Village People, and finally to to sportscaster and former NFL player Ahmad Rashad, whose best man was O.J. Simpson - Rashad spoke in her dressing room with frequent Newsday contributor Frank Lovece.

I guess, given your family background, the odds were good you'd go into the arts. How'd you get from Houston to here?

When I was in the sixth grade, I was selected to represent my school in a citywide audition for a music festival that was taking place in the spring. So every day before school and after school, instead of playing in the playground with my friends, I was in rehearsal, just me and the teachers. And after the audition, [the teachers] came and said ... they want you to be the mistress of ceremonies for the entire thing.

Now it isn't uncommon for girls of that age to have certain dilemma about themselves. And I had lots of dilemma. I didn't know why I wasn't beautiful like my mother, I didn't know why I wasn't cute like my sister. So when the night came ... I stood up in a spotlight for the first time - and I couldn't see anything but light. And so all evening, I would stand and I would talk to the light. When the program was over, a couple of mothers were leaving and I heard them saying, "Oh, there's the little girl who spoke so beautifully, isn't she beautiful?" And when I heard that I thought, "When I grow up, I'll be an actress. I'll play in the light and be beautiful all the time."

And that is a lovely and very honest-sounding memory. I was thinking more like your professional entrance into theater.

[After graduating from Howard University], I came to New York. My first apartment was with my sister, Debbie, on West 84th Street. And Debbie (chuckles) always had friends coming up from [Washington] D.C., who were sleeping on the living-room floor, and she was a member of [dancer-choreographer] George Faison's Universal Dance Experience, so every night I was with a company of dancers ... and we were eating spaghetti or broiled chicken wings. There was a real community. And it was exciting!

I remember, this was the era of hot pants. One night in the freezing cold, my sister and I were flying through the streets with George Faison, dressed in these little hot pants, trying to find the after-party to the Aretha Franklin concert! (laughs) Those were the days, my friend! We were in New York, earning $50 a week, and everything was good!

So you had done some TV, but were basically a Broadway baby when you landed "The Cosby Show." Did Bill Cosby know your stage work?

He didn't really know of me. I was auditioning for the role of Clair along with a lot of other actresses, and I might have been mentioned to him by Gloria Foster [the Obie Award-winning actress who went on to play the Oracle in two "Matrix" movies], who was a dear friend of his and who was aware of my work in the theater. Because he wanted actors. Even the young people. The first instruction we received from Bill was, "Do not try to be funny. Tell the story." That's what we do in theater all the time. Unbeknownst to me at that time, he had actually been on the Broadway stage in "Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death," for a week.

While you were in the show?

No. But he had actually come in and had worked on that. A lot of people don't know that. It was just something he wanted to do.

A lot of people don't know that, as a singer, you used to open for the Village People.

Hmmm. (Silence, then small, cold voice) Once. (Her face twinkles. Interviewer chuckles. Rashad smiles.) That was enough of that. Next question!

Ever stay in touch with the best man at your wedding to Ahmad Rashad?

Would you??? (Tense silence - then both crack up at same time.)
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