New York Times
By BRUCE WEBER
January 4, 2012
The second act of “Stick Fly,” Lydia R. Diamond’s meaty soap opera about an affluent black family, begins with its youngest character, 18-year-old Cheryl, the daughter of the family’s maid, on the phone in the family’s well-appointed kitchen. She’s getting bad news from her mother. Life-changing bad news.
In a play where there is almost always a crowd of people onstage who are at cross purposes about race, class or gender, it’s a rare moment of privacy. And for Condola Rashad, the actress who plays Cheryl and is making her Broadway debut in “Stick Fly,” it’s the toughest scene in the show.
“No one’s on the phone,” Ms. Rashad explained during a recent lunchtime interview. “I’m literally out there hurting my own feelings.”
She paused, then elaborated:
“You know how there’s always the one girl in drama school who can cry at the drop of a hat? She has that emotional well she can tap into in a second? I’m not that girl. It takes a lot to get me to that place.
“The way I work emotionally is: I don’t ever try to cry. I try not to, which is what for me produces organic emotion. But the director wanted something specific, he wanted it to be that emotional, so it’s a matter of me making up dialogue.
“During the entire intermission I have to be on the phone in my head. For, like, 20 minutes I’m hurting my own feelings.”
At 25, Ms. Rashad, who graduated from the California Institute of the Arts in 2008, seems poised between drama school and stardom. She’s young enough that college is still her most formidable point of reference. She likes to begin sentences with “My thing is…,” peppers conversation with “totally” and “awesome,” and speaks about herself as an actress with an earnest delight in self-discovery.
But now, in her second major stage role — just out of school she played a rape victim in “Ruined,” Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama set in the Congolese civil war — she is getting used to being recognized for gifts that go beyond the scope of her limited experience or her famous family name — she’s the daughter of Phylicia and Ahmad Rashad.
Among a “Stick Fly” cast that includes TV stars (Dulé Hill, Mekhi Phifer) and Broadway veterans (Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Tracie Thoms), “the discovery of the evening is the quietly captivating Ms. Rashad,” Charles Isherwood wrote in The New York Times. “Even when she is hovering at the edges of the drama, passing in and out of the kitchen or refilling wineglasses in the living room, Ms. Rashad’s Cheryl is a powerful presence, sensitive to every hint of condescension directed her way.”
Kenny Leon, the director of “Stick Fly,” cast Ms. Rashad after she came to audition for a role opposite Samuel L. Jackson in another new Broadway play, “The Mountaintop.” That part was eventually given to Angela Bassett, an actress almost three decades older.
“Condola was too young to play the part in ‘Mountaintop,’ but she had a maturity that made me think she can do older and sexy,” Mr. Leon said. “Most actresses, they can do blue, red, green and that’s it, they do what they do. But if I say to Condola, ‘Do blue,’ she says, ‘What shade of blue do you want?’ ”
Kate Whoriskey, the director of “Ruined,” added in an e-mail:
“I think she is one of America’s great talents. When Condola came in to audition, she had a preternatural understanding of acting. Many actors transitioning from training to the professional world fall into two traps. They try to show all of the skills they learned at school in a 10-minute audition, or they play at being young rather than acknowledge that they bring their age into the room with them. What struck me about Condola’s audition was her economy of choices and her stillness.”
She is tall, coltish and strikingly pretty with huge doe eyes; her looks betray her celebrity pedigree. Her father is the broadcaster and former All-Pro wide receiver. Her mother won a 2004 Tony Award for her role as the family matron in the revival of “A Raisin in the Sun,” and, more famously, played Clair Huxtable, the mother in the groundbreaking hit “The Cosby Show.”
In separate interviews both parents (who divorced when Condola was a teenager) said that they didn’t have to warn their daughter about the trappings of fame because they didn’t bring their celebrity home with them.
“She knows it’s the work that matters,” Phylicia Rashad said. “If not for the work, no one would be a celebrity, except for the Kardashians.”
The family lived in Mount Vernon, just north of New York City. As a child young Condola studied classical piano, and she still considers music a calling; lately she’s been writing songs for piano and guitar.
She went to the Fieldston School, in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, a private academy not unlike the one Cheryl is sent to in “Stick Fly.” Unlike her character Ms. Rashad wasn’t an outsider in that world — and didn’t feel like one.
“I wasn’t Cheryl, though I had friends like her,” Ms. Rashad said. “Girls who came from that kind of background, whose mothers might have been a maid — you could tell that in the streets they could hold their own — but they were aware of themselves, they knew how to speak correct English.
“So when Cheryl gets mad, definitely the street comes out. But my thing is, like, it’s only going to be realistic if I really can be in touch with that other side of her, not to make it so over the top just to make it funny, because then 18-year-olds who come see it are going to go, ‘Nope, that’s not us.’ ”
By all accounts relations between the parents and child are swell. Her father, Ms. Rashad said, “is my hero,” someone who has never missed a show in which she has appeared and has already been to “Stick Fly” half a dozen times; he once flew from South Africa to Los Angeles to catch her in a student production, she said.
“That’s true,” Mr. Rashad said in a phone interview. “Though I did have a hard time staying awake at the play.”
Following in her mother’s footsteps can be difficult, though Ms. Rashad acknowledged that the family name gives her a leg up; she’s known Mr. Leon, who directed her mother twice on Broadway, since she was a little girl.
She can remember going to work with her mother toward the end of the Cosby run. (“She was pregnant with me one season,” Ms. Rashad said, “so that was my debut.”) And watching her mother on the set shaped her aspirations early.
Phylicia Rashad recalled that when Condola was 4, she announced, “I’m going to be on ‘The Cosby Show,’ and my mother will be my assistant.”
But even before that, “she sat at the piano one day and began to play,” Phylicia Rashad said. “She hadn’t had instruction, and it was interesting to see that she touched the keys gingerly. She didn’t bang. That showed sensitivity. And she said: ‘Mommy, I need a reading teacher, a piano teacher and a dancing teacher. Can you get me those things?’ ”
Condola Rashad said she and her mother are very different personalities, and she admitted that she is not above flaunting her idiosyncrasies.
“My mom is revered as this glamorous, regal woman,” she said. “She doesn’t even mean to be, she’s just, um, a queen. Even when you’re just talking to her, she has this air about her, and I’m just like a weird, quirky person.”
“We celebrate our differences now, but there are things she had a hard time with,” Ms. Rashad added. “I came back from Cal Arts with tattoos” — she has a peacock feather on her right wrist and an African-American mermaid along her left side, among others — “playing guitar on the rooftop, blasting rock ’n’ roll from my room, and she was, like, ‘What is happening?’ ”
Informed of her daughter’s comments, Phylicia Rashad laughed.
“If that’s her assessment, that’s just lovely,” she said. “I’m glad she thinks of her mother as royalty, but the child of royalty is royalty also.”