NEW YORK — Phylicia Rashad was hoping for Medea. Instead, she found Shelah.
The actress’ quest to play a tragic heroine has led her to a small downtown stage where, night after night, she is giving a blistering performance as a Job-like woman named Shelah whose deep Christian faith is challenged by a series of devastating losses.
Her performance, in Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “Head of Passes,” has stunned audiences as, over the course of two hours, this regal actress seems to shatter, physically and emotionally. “Ms. Rashad will be hard pressed to ever again top her work here,” the critic Ben Brantley wrote in The New York Times. He added, “It hurts to look into Ms. Rashad’s eyes at the play’s end.”
Even for an actress as loved and honored as Rashad — she became famous playing Clair Huxtable on “The Cosby Show,” and then won a Tony Award for “A Raisin in the Sun” — the role is a rare treasure, and she is savoring it.
“I don’t feel exhausted after a performance. I don’t feel depleted. I don’t feel wasted,” she said in an interview at the Public Theater, which is planning to extend the run of the play, based on the strength of Rashad’s performance, to May 1. “I feel a little buoyant, to tell you the truth.”
The role is physically, and vocally, taxing. Shelah — a widowed bed-and-breakfast operator in rural Louisiana who is determined to stay in her repair-hungry house despite fading health and the pleas of her grown children — is fierce and proud. She also has a wracking cough. She walks through debris. And she talks to God, directly, demandingly, and, increasingly, desperately. The play’s second act, which the playwright, McCraney, substantially rewrote for the Public production, consists largely of an arialike one-woman prayer vigil.
Rashad, who is 67, said she began preparing for the role by declaring, “I’m going to empty myself.”
“Before we started rehearsals, it was all I could do to stay in my skin,” she said. “I didn’t talk to too many people about it. Something else my mother told me: She said if something was very important to you, you keep it close.”
Great actors find great parts any number of ways — often through an agent, or an audition, an artistic director or a producer. Rashad, who has access to all those channels, found the role of Shelah through her daughter’s childhood friend, a young man she recalled fixing pancakes for when he was just an adolescent (secret ingredient: lemon yogurt).
Kyle Beltran, who became friends with Rashad’s daughter, Condola, when the two attended school together, is an actor who performed in the initial production of “Head of Passes” at Steppenwolf Theater Company in Chicago in 2013, and is reprising his role in the Public production. (The play was also done at Berkeley Repertory Theater.)
“I have often thought about how difficult it can be for artists of color, for women, as they age, looking for material that can make use of the full scope of their gifts, and when I read this, I thought it would be an incredible undertaking for her,” Beltran said. “I was really nervous — I thought, I only have one shot to bring her a play. But now I feel like my biggest contribution to the American theater so far has been uniting her and this play, because anybody who sees it knows it feels like a kind of destiny for her.”
Rashad was not looking for anything in particular at the time.
But she had, in lean-in fashion, introduced herself to the Public’s artistic director, Oskar Eustis, with a phone call in which she told him she wanted to play Medea in New York. She had acted at the Public several times, though before Eustis was in charge, and had played Medea once, at the Alliance Theater in Atlanta.
He invited her to lunch in London, where she was performing in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and he was checking in on the Public Theater’s production of “Hair,” and, although Eustis’ Public doesn’t do much Greek theater, a relationship was forged.
So, when the Public Theater decided to present “Head of Passes” in New York, Beltran gave Rashad the script, and Eustis invited her to do a reading with many of the actors from the Chicago production. She agreed, and the role became hers.
“I cried through the whole thing,” said Tina Landau, the play’s director.
Rashad recalled thinking, “If I never do anything else, I did this today.”
“I would say to her, ‘This time don’t go full throttle,’ and before you knew it, she was on the floor with tears coming down her cheeks — it was like she has some open conduit where the themes and ideas of the play come through her, and you just can’t stop it,” Landau said.
Rashad also made clear that she did not want to be treated as a star. She wanted feedback, directly and without sugarcoating. “I am a young man, and she’s an icon of incredible work who has broken so many barriers, so I was very deferential,” McCraney said. “She made sure that didn’t continue.”
Rashad said she was able to find Shelah’s sound with relative ease. She grew up in Texas, but her father was from Louisiana, and the family had a farm there, so what she called “the rhythms” were familiar. Rashad’s own family and neighbors were churchgoing Christians, so that was familiar, too. And, Rashad said, she shared with Shelah a devotion to her children.
Beyond that, Rashad said, is acting. She said she found herself unable to describe how exactly she gasps and hacks without damaging her voice, how she navigates wreckage without stumbling, how she makes ferocity and pain look so naturalistic without damaging her own psyche.
“Remember, the painting does not see itself,” she said. “I’ve often wondered, what does it look like?”