In the Alliance Theatre of Atlanta’s spring production of Medea, when Messenger arrived to tell the sorceress that her poisons had turned her husband ‘s new lover into a bloody, smoking pulp, Phylicia Rashad smiled like one preparing to savor a long-awaited feast. “Tell me the story slowly,” she said in a guttural voice halfway between a growl and purr.
It was a signature moment in a performance both larger-than-life and nakedly human, nobly spoken but rooted to the earth. And it was yet another stretch—this time into the rarefied arena of Greek tragedy—for an actor who proved in the Alliance’s 1996 Blues for an Alabama Sky that she is far deeper than Bill Cosby’s sitcom-cutie spouse.
With due respect to Diana Rigg and the muscular Almeida Theatre production that performed the same 80-minute Alistair Elliot translation of Euripides on Broadway a few seasons ago, Rashad’s predator-cat performance was simply more alive, more moving. The 48-year-old thespian cut a bewitching figure with black tendrils of hair tumbling onto a white gown. Even after she steeled herself to butchering her sons, Rashad’s Medea never ceased to be a tornadic swirl of traits and emotions: woundedness, feral cunning, pride, remorse, bloodlust.
“You can’t not understand this Medea,” said veteran Atlanta actor Jim Peck, who played Creon and admits that he was skeptical until rehearsals began that TV star Rashad had the chops for Euripides. “It was almost maddening to find yourself empathizing with her. All you could do was scream against heaven.”
Director Kenny Leon’s casting of Rashad against a white Jason (Curt Hostetter) may sound, on paper, like an attempt to load the husband ‘s faithlessness with the extra baggage of racial betrayal. In practice the choice was inspired. Placing an African-American Medea in a mostly white Corinth (stunningly imagined by Alliance set designer Marjorie Bradley Kellogg) underlined the desperate isolation of this granddaughter of the sun, who gave up her natural realm to follow Jason into the alien, rationalistic culture of the Greeks.
“I found the Broadway production a bit cold, but I knew there was no danger of that with Phylicia,” said Leon, who in the fall will begin his 10th season as artistic director of the Alliance. “She has the raw emotional pull and classical training [from Howard University] to bring a contemporary audience in touch with this material.”
During the production’s May-June run, Houston-bred Rashad answered questions for me.
DAN HULBERT: How does this ancient myth resonate today?
PHYLICIA RASHAD: The male-female issues are always with us. I’ve encountered women who have sacrificed themselves one way or another for the men they loved. I know a beautiful woman who confined her art to the attic of her home to propel her husband’s career. Men do it, too—forsake things to be with a certain woman. None of us are powerless. We can make other kinds of choices for ourselves.
It seems that since the affair of Susan Smith, who drowned her children in South Carolina a few years ago, we hear about more horrible cases of infanticide. It was happening before then. But since it is in the news more often, I confess I hesitated about taking this role; I thought, I don’t know if I want to go over there. I was apprehensive. In the play I have to descend to depths of anger I consciously avoid in my mind. A friend once told me there can be great bliss in the release of rage.
That sounds like the Greek notion of catharsis.
It’s a sensation one can get in performance, too.
The Alliance has never mounted a Greek classic in its 30-year history. Many people will come to see you, but will they connect with the play?
So many modern writers kvetch about personal problems—their mothers didn’t give them enough chocolate milk or something. The Greeks wrote about duty to family and country, excess of pride, the difference between love and passion, ambition and avarice.The poetry is beautiful, full of feeling, but not beyond anyone’s understanding .
I’ve heard you say that you never take a job without first getting permission from your 11-year-old daughter, Phylea. How did you broach Medea with her?
I took Phylea to see the Ballet d’Espana in New York, and Medea was on the program. The action got intense and she got very quiet. Then she let out a gasp and said, “Ah! She killed her children!” I said, “Shhhhh !” Finally she whispered, “Mother! How come you got to kill somebody every time?” [Laughter.] Seems I’m exploring more dangerous women down here in Atlanta.
What about the physical and vocal demand s of Medea?
They’re extreme. In rehearsals my voice got low and rough. Ahmad [Rashad, her sportscaster husband] heard me on the phone and said, “What is it? What’s wrong with your voice?” I was simply adjusting to the huge range of emotion and projection. I started in good shape, but running the show takes tremendous strength. So I do my barre every morning . You want the body to be toned, aligned? Ballet!
How have you liked working in front of Atlanta audiences?
There’s an inherent graciousness here. My mother was from Chester, S.C., so I understand it. In the grocery stores ladies come and talk. One said, “You don’t know how many marriages you’ve saved, thanks to The Cosby Show. You taught us how to laugh at ourselves, and that’s the secret!” I usually don’t see this perspective, and it’s very gratifying and humbling.
Dan Hulbert is theatre critic of the Atlanta Journal and Constitution.