It’s ‘not a “Cosby”-esque family’ in play directed by Phylicia Rashad
BY HEDY WEISS Theater Criticfirstname.lastname@example.org June 5, 2012 9:14PM
Actress/producer Phylicia Rashad (from "The Cosby Show") and playwright Paul Stovall are working on his play "Immediate Family" at the Goodman Theatre. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times
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Updated: July 7, 2012 8:18AM
It is common knowledge that family gatherings proceed most smoothly when the conversation steers clear of the subjects of sex, money and religion. Some would quickly add an additional taboo topic — politics — and of course that word frequently embraces the whole notion of race.
It also is common knowledge that American drama — from Eugene O’Neill on to Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Lorraine Hansberry and Tracy Letts — has thrived on the conceit of family gatherings that run amok. So Paul Oakley Stovall’s play, “The Immediate Family,” opening Friday night at the Goodman Theatre in a production directed by Tony Award and Emmy Award-winning actress Phylicia Rashad — can be seen as part of a theatrical continuum.
As Rashad describes Stovall’s play, which is set in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, “it is all about family — a play of universal resonance in which adult siblings engage in discourse and discussion about race, religion and sexuality.”
Rashad, of course, is renowned for her role as Clair Huxtable, the attorney and mother of five in the long-running NBC sitcom, “The Cosby Show” — the landmark show about an affluent African-American family living in Brooklyn Heights, New York. Now at the helm of “Immediate Family” (backed by commercial producers Paul Boskind, Ruth Hendel and Stephen Hendel, by special arrangement with the Goodman Theatre and in association with About Face Theatre), she gets to orchestrate the high comedy and heated emotions of another African-American family, which has gathered for a reunion. On hand are a grown sister and her two younger brothers, one of whom is gay and is about to marry a Swede.
“Yes, there are some issues in this play that are particular to an African-American family, but they are human issues, and they speak to everyone, just as the plays of Sophocles do,” said an adamant Rashad. “That is the joy and power of art in general. And this is not a Cosby-esque family; it is very different. It is a family in which the patriarch was a minister.”
Rashad’s own family was different, too — a real standout. She was born in Houston, Texas, in 1948 — the daughter of a mother who was a Pulitzer Prize-nominated artist, poet, playwright, scholar and publisher, and a father who was an orthodontist. She spent part of her youth in Mexico, so she speaks Spanish fluently. And she graduated from Howard University where, as she recalled: “It was long before the advent of August Wilson, and we had a conservatory-style drama program in which we studied Shakespeare, Restoration comedy, Strindberg, Chekhov and the rest. Then, in my senior year, we all said, ‘Enough!,’ and we started with black playwrights.”
Yet in recent years Rashad, who early on in her career appeared in such Broadway productions as “Dreamgirls” and “The Wiz” (in which she played a Munchkin), has taken on a slew of major theatrical roles that have both everything and nothing to do with race.
In the 2004 Broadway revival of Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” she played matriarch Lena Younger (a role she reprised for television), which led to her becoming the first African-American actress to win a Tony Award for best leading actress in a play. In 2004, she played the ancient Aunt Ester, a former slave and “soul-cleanser” in the Broadway edition of “Gem of the Ocean” — her first appearance in an August Wilson play (and subsequently the work with which she made her directorial debut, when she staged it in 2007 for Seattle Repertory Theatre).
In 2008, Rashad played Big Mama opposite James Earl Jones in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” as part of an all-black Broadway cast directed by her sister, Debbie Allen. And then, in 2009, she joined the Broadway cast of Tracy Letts’ “August: Osage County,” playing the role of the cancer-ridden, pill-addled, Oklahoma-bred matriarch Violet Weston — a character originated by Chicago actress Deanna Dunagan.
“It was great to discover how much fun, as well as how torturous insanity can be,” Rashad said in talking about Violet. “But it is a role you leave on the stage. Tracy [Letts] talked to me about how he crafted Violet’s language, and the particular rhythms of her character. And I loved working with Anna [Shapiro, the Steppenwolf director] because she is so devoted to finding the truth in human behavior. She never wants ‘all that acting’ as she puts it. And I think that is the core principle of all Steppenwolf actors.”
Stovall, a Chicago-bred actor who was mentored by Mary Zimmerman, who recently appeared in the Court Theatre production of “Invisible Man,” and who had an early version of “Immediate Family” (originally titled “As Much as You Can”) presented by Chicago’s Dog and Pony Theatre Company, first met Rashad when he went backstage to her dressing room with some friends after seeing “August: Osage County.”
“I didn’t talk very much, but we looked at each other, and then I told her: ‘I think we will work together one day’,” recalled Stovall, who some years ago lived in Sweden (and fell in love there), and who these days serves as a White House Advance Associate, most often helping to set the scene and get the buzz going for appearances by First Lady Michelle Obama. “Soon after that meeting I sent her my script, and within three days she had read it.”
Following “Immediate Family,” Rashad will “go home to New York for a hot minute,” and then head to Atlanta to be directed by Kenny Leon in the stage premiere of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” She will then go into production for “Do No Harm,” a new NBC series in which she plays a chief of surgery in a hospital where a brilliant neurosurgeon has a secret life as a sociopath. Meanwhile, a telefilm version of “Steel Magnolias” (with an all-black cast featuring Queen Latifah and Rashad’s daughter, Condola), is heading for a Lifetime release.