Whether it's Clair Huxtable on The Cosby Show or Lena Younger in A Raisin in the Sun, Phylicia Rashad has built her career on playing strong women. Rashad continues that tradition by stepping into the role of Wilimena Deeds in Tyler Perry's new film, Good Deeds. It's the actress' second appearance in a Perry film. In 2010, she appeared in For Colored Girls.
Growing up in Houston, Rashad was surrounded by literature. Her mother, Vivian Ayers, was once nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Rashad says even today when you are in her mother's home, you are surrounded by art and "you understand you are in the environs of a creative thinker."
Rashad's childhood paved the way for her future. When you spend time talking with her, you realize that like the characters she plays, she too is strong and isn't afraid to speak out on controversial issues. While Good Deeds may be just another film for movie-goers, for Rashad it provides an opportunity for her to encourage others to stop and examine what is happening in their lives and the world today.
What was it about this script that made you accept the offer to be in this film?
It's a different film for Tyler [Perry]. It's a film where he becomes a romantic lead. That's exciting because he's always going in a different direction. I liked the premise of the film very much. [It's about] a person who has lived a life according to the rules and fulfilled them all but not himself because there were certain questions he never asked.
Tell us about your character Wilimena Deeds.
She's a woman of social standing and substantial means, who has a vision of how life should go. She's a woman who loves her son very, very much, who treasures him, who delights in him and finds her own identity in his success and accomplishments.
Tyler Perry said about the film: "Good Deeds is a story about a guy who had always done what he was told to do but never what he wanted to do until his defining moment arrives when someone comes along who helps open his eyes." Has there ever been a time in your life when someone opened your eyes?
Oh, yeah. My mother was always opening my eyes to something new. My mother is someone who is a conservative rebel. That's what we call our mother. She's a little vanguard in her own way, and yet she is not without decorum.
Would you say this film is about class?
Class is an element within the story. Class is defined by economic standing, but this could be anybody's story. It would just be framed differently. It could be the story of someone who doesn't have the same economic advantages, let's say. Or the same social standing who did everything that everyone around them expected him to do, but never once asked themselves "What would I like to do?"
You could frame it another way. Frame it with a person who grows up in an area where gangs are very popular and everybody expects you to do that, so that's what you do and never once did you ask yourself, "What is it that I'd really like to do?" The person might want to do something very different. They may want to go to medical school. They might want to live a life of volunteerism. You could frame this story in different circumstances. The core circumstance of this story is finding the truth in one's own heart and moving in alignment with it. Class, economic standing -- those are elements within this particular story.
It's obvious you dug deeper within the script.
See, that's the one good thing about having had a wonderful teacher in high school literature. Mrs. Wheadon. She taught us how to look beneath the surface of things. I'm saying that because an impetus behind this film is what can be done to make someone else's life better? I'm listening to the horror stories in the news about education in our country being pushed to the side. Historically, if you look at great civilizations, why do they crumble? Is it because of what's outside or because of something internal? It's always internal. It is.
Are the cuts in education one of our country's main problems at the moment?
What our country looks at right now -- there is this insidious greed and apathy. We are told there is not enough money for education, but somehow there is enough money for people to raise billions of dollars to defeat somebody in an election? Oh! Okay! Does that make sense?
We really don't stop to think about it until we're posed the question.
No, you don't because you don't read between the lines and beneath the surface. It doesn't make sense. So, with all of the things we could do to make life better for other people, as well as for ourselves because we're all affected by this, I think that everybody who really loves our country should stand and protest to these cuts in education. Without an educated populist, democracy cannot sustain itself. It will not be sustained. Not only that, education is the key to innovation, and that is what has kept this country in the forefront.
And what about those who are educated and can't find jobs?
Okay, let's go further, and I don't want anybody to get mad, but I've got to say it because it's true. Young people are usually at the forefront of change. Young people are not dumb. Young people are not stupid, and I don't think we've seen the last of occupy movements.
What do you think of the occupy movements?
At the core of those were some well organized and thoughtful people. Let's just look at the price of oil. Let's just take one thing. When did the price of oil begin to soar? Just go back. Just go back. Most of us would never guess that it would have something to do with the stock exchange.
That's your opinion.
Historically, let's just look at it. Go look at it. And gold, which has always been so valuable, which was devalued, and now, what happened? Just go look at it. We are capable of so much greatness, but we really have to look deeper within ourselves and be willing to uncover it and not be afraid of it. This is a lovely film [Good Deeds], but it's really a model for something even greater.
What happens when we look inside to find what's really speaking to our hearts? How many times do we miss the opportunities to do that?
Let's continue with looking deeper. It appears you are saying these issues we are facing go further than just what the president has done or could do.
Oh, baby, it's not about one man. It's about all of us. Let's go back a few years ago where in secondary education civics and economics were taken out of the curriculum. Without instructions in civics, do you really understand the nature of your government and how it's structured and how it works and your responsibility as a citizen? Not at all, dear! When you hear about the soaring costs of political campaigns, this makes my mind say, "Are votes bought?" This also makes me wonder, is this what we're extending to the world when we say, "Let's extend democracy in this corner of the world?" Is this what we mean? You know, those men who trudged across the Delaware with George Washington had rags tied around their feet. Now, that's all I've got to say about that.
You must have received an 'A' in Mrs. Wheadon's class!
Eventually I did, but I had to work for it.
Your next role will be the narrator in a stage adaptation of Their Eyes Were Watching God with Chuck Cooper and Leslie Uggams at the The Greene Space at WNYC & WQXR in New York. How did you get involved?
Ruben Santiago is directing this. He's a long-time friend of mine and an actor whom I've collaborated with twice; once as a cast member in August Wilson's Broadway production of Gem of the Ocean and then he directed a production of that play at Princeton University. I'm really excited what we'll do with this.
You seem to never slow down. One would look at your career and say it's been a success, but what does success mean to you?
Success for me means being able to work. I don't look at so much at what I've done as much as I look to what I will do.
What are some things you'd still love to do?
There are some works that I would love to see in full bloom. Ifa Bayeza has written a piece called "Charleston Olio." This is based on the book she wrote with her sister Ntozake Shange, Some Cry, Some Sing. It is one of he best works in contemporary literature--one of the best works in literature period. Ifa and Ntozake are both highly educated and well accomplished individuals who collaborated on this book. It is an epic. I worked with it at the National Black Theater Festival. I worked with it at the BB King Museum.
Now, I don't know if my sister [director and choreographer Debbie Allen] has a role for me or not in this, but she has some works, and if I could be instrumental in helping them along, this is something I'd want to do. My sister has created works that have been performed at the Kennedy Center. These are theatrical works that involve young people. The thing about Deborah and her work is that when young people work with her, it's beyond one's neighborhood ballet school. She puts them through the paces on a very serious and professional level. I would love to see these works realized more fully.
And your mother calls you her "writer who doesn't write." Are you ever going to write something?
I know I've got to write something. Okay, I've got it. I'm going to do it. I've promised myself and my mother.
In 2004 you became the first African-American actress to receive the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play for A Raisin in the Sun. You then went on to do the TV movie. Recently you directed another production of the play for the Ebony Repertory Theatre. What is it about this play that continues to inspire you?
It's a very important play because of what's at the core of it. What's at the core is human dignity as sustained through family, and that applies to everybody -- no matter the generation, the year, or the ethnicity.
Earlier when you were discussing class and how Good Deeds could be anyone's story, one can't help but think of The Cosby Show and how it showed that having two educated professionals in an African-American household could happen.
It does happen. We didn't create anything new. Even on a larger scale, around the world people have seen themselves in it. I learned there were people from different countries who would tape episodes and ship them back to their families and people in India and places like that would gather and watch those episodes. People have come to me from different places in the world and have said, "We saw ourselves in that." Not only that, it was good PR for our country, and that's all I've got to say about that! Hmm-mm.
What was it like being part of that show?
What a joy. What a gift. What a blessing to have been a part of something that has meant so much to so many people for so much time.
Do you ever watch it?
I do. I enjoy watching the young people. My mother observed them at the time when the show just began. She said, "They are extraordinary." And it's true. [I remember] Keshia Knight Pulliam in an episode about a dress she wanted to wear that was out of season. Then she ends up doing this entire scene in silence to the track of Ray Charles singing "It Ain't Easy Being Green." Now those were Mr. Cosby's sensibilities crafted into that writing. Oh yes. He is not only a national treasure; Mr. Cosby is a human treasure. I don't know when, if ever, we will fully understand or realize all that he has given through his work. I can tell you, I worked with him for 12 years. I was with him four days out of every week. I've enjoyed countless dinners at his home, and in those 12 years, I didn't know. He's that kind of person. He's that kind of man. He moves about doing his work. Some of it is very visible. Some of it is very quiet. All of it is meritorious. I love him so much.
Good Deeds opens February 24. Their Eyes Were Watching God will be performed at The Greene Space at WNYC & WQXR in New York on February 29 and March 1. For tickets, visit http://www.thegreenespace.org/
Photo credit: Quantrell Colbert