"I didn’t think of myself as a Black mother. I’m a mother."
Phylicia Rashad, 72, tries her hand at sci-fi horror and finds new depths to the role that made her a legend.
Phylicia Rashad is nothing if not composed. In this way, the new Zoom era suits her. Rashad is sitting in what looks to be a home office, well-lit and surrounded by shelves of books, wearing a crisp white shirt, posture straight, shoulders squared and level with the frame of my computer screen. We ease into the interview with the increasingly customary counting of blessings during these times — especially as Black folks. For our health, the safety and wellness of our families, of our children. “That’s what we have to do,” Rashad says in her gentle, calibrated cadence, a simple statement that holds the weight of six months and 400 years.
It feels both appropriate and daunting to discuss motherhood with Rashad, who has played myriad memorable mothers throughout her decades-long career in theater, film, and television. But none more iconic than Clair Huxtable from the now irreparably tarnished ‘80s sitcom The Cosby Show. For eight seasons, Rashad played Clair — wife, attorney, mother of five, and head of household — with a rigorous sense of self, clarity, and purpose. Clair’s commitment to raising her children to become smart, morally grounded, responsible, and compassionate individuals was palpable and uncompromising, and Rashad commanded every single scene in which Clair flexed that authority.
“I loved those years,” says Rashad of her time on the show. “I was thinking about it just yesterday morning. It was such a creative time, and a collaborative time. It was a high, high time. It was a great time. And it gave people in the world a lot.”
When I was pregnant with my son 15 years ago, a friend who was already a mother affectionately warned me that your children will hold you emotionally hostage in ways that you could have never possibly imagined. I remember watching an episode of The Cosby Show, then still in reruns, where this particular advice bears out in no uncertain terms, when teenaged Vanessa, the fourth of Clair’s five children, lies about going to a concert in Baltimore. Of course Clair finds out, and when she gets Vanessa back home, Rashad gives one of her most cogent performances as the Cosby family matriarch.
“I hope that one day you come to realize exactly what it feels like to think that your child’s life is in danger,” Clair tells Vanessa, teeth clenched, lips rigid. “You have taken us from levels of frenzy, panic, distress, and now that we know you’re OK … rage.” Vanessa’s eyes water, as she lowers her head, engulfed in shame. It’s among hundreds of indelible moments during the run of The Cosby Show that earned Rashad the title “Mother of the Black Community” at the 2010 NAACP Image Awards.
Playing mothers on screen and stage is a second skin for Rashad, who is able to find the emotional center and maternal integrity in each character, all of whom together demonstrate her wildly impressive range as an actor. The list includes Lena “Mama” Younger in A Raisin in the Sun (on stage in 2004, which earned her a Tony Award for Best Actress, and again in the 2008 TV movie adaptation), Mary Anne Creed in the Ryan Coogler films Creed and Creed 2, Diana DuBois on the Fox TV series Empire, and KeKe’s mom in Drake’s 2018 video for “In My Feelings.” More recently, Rashad stars in Black Box, a science fiction horror film in which she plays Lillian Brooks, a doctor and mother who might be described as the hyper-manifestation of all the mothers Rashad has ever performed throughout her career — on steroids.
Black Box has something of a prodigal son theme — the wayward son who squanders the privileges he inherits from his parents — although it’s a difficult film to describe in any specific detail without giving too much away. Suffice it to say that Black Box is about the lengths to which mothers, but also fathers, daughters, and sons, will go to keep their families intact — in the case of this film, an expensive and dangerously experimental medical treatment to recapture lost memories.
Rashad says she was thrilled by the opportunity to star in her first sci-fi horror film — one made sweeter by the fact that the offer came directly from its young director, Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour, who sent Rashad a letter of admiration alongside the script a year after meeting her as a fan at a film panel. According to Osei-Kuffour, her instincts and the sense of compassion that she brought to the role grounded its genre elements.
“Part of my goal as a filmmaker was always to build empathy for people that might not understand another group of people,” says Osei-Kuffour. “And I think this film does [that], because at the end of the day, it’s just about a Black family struggling to stay together.”
It did occur to me as I watched the film that all too rarely are Black families, but especially Black sons, bestowed privileges to begin with. Even then, they rarely are able to enjoy their privileges in the face of racial profiling and police violence. I ask Rashad if this idea resonated with her on a personal level. She pauses before responding. “I wasn’t thinking like that,” she says cooly, her hair slicked back in a low bun, skin dewy and ageless. “In mothering, I didn’t think about myself as being a Black mother. I’m a mother.”
I try to hide my surprise at her response, especially now, during the current “racial reckoning” we’re experiencing in this country, and then feel foolish for thinking I could hide anything from Clair Huxtable. She smiles, affording me a small measure of grace for my presumption about how she perceives herself.
“I didn’t think about my children being Black children; I think of my children being children,” Rashad continues, referring to her son, William Lancelot Bowles III, who was 10 years old when she was first cast on The Cosby Show, and her daughter, actor Condola Rashad. “The ethnicity is obvious — it’s in our food, it’s in the music we listen to, it’s in the books we read, it’s in the way we live, it’s in the company we keep and the dances that we do. I don’t have to make a conscious point about it, because I know who I am.”
Osei-Kuffour describes Rashad as “a legend,” and while you’d likely be hard-pressed to find anyone inside or outside of the industry who would disagree, with legendary status comes grounding in a certain generational era. Unlike any number of young Black actors today who often draw on their own racial identity and personal experiences to enhance the depth of the characters they are portraying, Rashad is all studied artistry and focused confidence. And it continues to pay off.
On screen or stage, Rashad is a sheer force of agility, elegance, and precision, traits that are abundantly evident in her non-mother roles, too. She is an actor of essential craft — acting is an art form to her. Osei-Kuffour recalls the first time he worked with her on-set. “It was the end of the day, and we had about 10 minutes to shoot a two-page scene," he says. "She was just very open to my direction, and she gave a really great performance in the matter of 10 minutes. We got the scene and we were out on time. And I think we even got an extra shot on top of all that.”
Rashad credits her acting skills to a matrilineal majesty — her own mother, the Pulitzer Prize-nominated poet Vivian Ayers Allen. “My mother taught me many, many things. And one of the things my mother would teach us as children is that inner reality creates the outer form,” says Rashad, eyes ablaze and prideful at the thought of her mother, who raised Rashad, sister Debbie Allen (the actor, dancer, and director), and brothers Tex Allen (a musician) and Hugh Allen (a real estate banker) in Houston, Texas with her late husband, Andrew Arthur Allen, a dental surgeon.
This is a golden moment, honey, for us to come together and stop the madness.
“My mother,” Rashad starts again, and then pauses for an adoring laugh. “My mother was, among other things, very given to the study of the Mayan calendar and mathematics,” she says, punctuating this thought with an even louder, more robust burst of laugh, sounding more girlish than grown. “And she says,” Rashad slips into what she implies is her mother’s voice, only slightly lower and more singsongy than her own. “‘You know what the mathematician’s job really is — it’s to bring the problem to its simplest form.’” Rashad claps her hands together and erupts into a can-you-believe, all-out guffaw. “I love my mom, but it’s true isn’t it?”
It’s certainly an appealing theory of artistic practice, if potentially arduous in application off the screen or page. What is the simplest form of a pandemic that’s still disproportionately killing Black and brown people, while the country is being led by a white supremacist bully, just weeks away from an election of a lifetime? What if we’re not all mathematicians?
“Last night I had this incredible dream,” Rashad says, unprompted. “I dreamed I was in another country. And I walked into the halls of government in this other country, and the politicians were all sitting there like politicians do. And they were going at it, and I said to them, ‘Stop. Stop. Don’t you see what’s happening?’ The political parties were sitting on different sides, and I took the hand of one person on one side and one on the other. And I said, ‘If we can’t do this, it’s the end of everything and the end of us all. We have to do this,’ meaning take hands to join together. This is the only way. ... This is a golden moment, honey, for us to come together and stop the madness.”
I don’t bring up Bill Cosby by name out of respect for Rashad, who has publicly supported her friend and former TV husband since a flurry of sexual assault and misconduct allegations surfaced against him in late 2014. In an exclusive interview with ABC in January 2015, Rashad described Cosby as “a genius, generous, kind and inclusive.” Prior to the interview, Rashad had been quoted as saying, “Forget those women,” in response to the women who came forward with accusations against Cosby, which she vehemently argued in the ABC interview was a misquote: “What I said is that this is not about the women. This is about something else. This is about the obliteration of legacy.” In 2018, Cosby was convicted of three counts of felony sexual assault, and sentenced to three to 10 years in prison; he has appealed the decision to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
Instead, I ask her what she might tell people who feel they can no longer watch The Cosby Show. “I don't know why anybody would feel that way,” Rashad says, her tenor plain. “I just don’t accept what somebody says because they say it, and they say it in a loud voice. The internet has given a lot of anonymous people a very loud voice. And this, too, has happened before.”
It’s almost too heartbreaking to accept Rashad’s continued dismissal of Cosby’s accusers — she is, after all, a modern Black queen. But she insists that there is a lesson to be learned here. “Zora Neale Hurston died a pauper,” Rashad says, sharpening her tone. “And do you know why?” I knew that Hurston, the celebrated writer best known for her 1937 novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, had died poor, and gathered through various historical accounts that it was because she’d had difficulties getting her work published (what Black writer throughout history hasn’t?). But I had to admit to Rashad that I didn’t know any further specifics.
“Oh, you should do a little research on that,” Rashad says, raising her eyebrows at me. “You should go back and look at some charges that were brought up against her that didn’t make any sense. And look at what happened when the judge had thrown out the case, but it had gone through [Black magazines], through this step and the other, and her books were taken off the shelf.”
You have to Google the specific words “falsely accused” along with “Zora Neale Hurston” in order to turn up the story. According to a 2002 piece in The New York Times, in 1948, “a vindictive neighbor accused Hurston of sexual relations with her 10-year-old son. The charges were patently false — Hurston had been in Honduras at the time, and the boy was mentally unstable — but she was indicted, and the story leaked to a Black newspaper, which sensationalized it. … The case was finally thrown out, and, characteristically, Hurston rebounded to work on a final published novel, ‘Seraph on the Suwanee,’ and a unfinished nonfiction work called ‘Herod the Great’ that no publisher would touch.”
“And so I know what I know, and I just stay with what I know,” Rashad says. “And it will happen in time, that this will come around another way, as it often does. And then people say, ‘Oh.’”
“So you don’t think it’s over?” I ask, gingerly passing the “it” back to her like a family heirloom.
“I don't know what’s over,” Rashad laughs, unyielding. And then she becomes somber. “There are some things I leave alone,” she says, letting her guard down ever so slightly for the first time during the interview. “I just leave them alone. I leave them alone.”
Perhaps in an effort to bring the problem to its simplest form — or to at least look at it through a purifying lens — Rashad mentions a story I’ve read and heard her tell before about meeting Nelson Mandela, who said he’d watched The Cosby Show with his prison guard on Robben Island in South Africa. Mandela told Rashad that watching the show had “softened” the guard. She beams at the memory. “That’s what art does, and that’s its power,” says Rashad, satisfied. “And that’s what I want to do — in all the work that I do.”
Top image credit: Carolina Herrera dress; Mateo earrings; Roger Vivier shoes.
Photographer: Emily Soto
Stylist: Tiffany Reid
Hair: Gabrielle Corney
Makeup: Karen Dupiche
Manicure: Maki Sakamoto
VP of Fashion: Tiffany Reid
VP of Creative: Karen Hibbert
Bookings: Special Projects