Phylicia Rashad and Clair Huxtable appear to be inextricably entwined: Just as no one remembers Clair, the super-woman of "The Cosby Show," without thinking of the actress who played her, few think of Ms. Rashad without flashing on Clair -- the perfect wife and mother of five who also practiced law and dressed to the nines. The nines by upper-middle-class standards, of course.
Now, a year after Bill Cosby retired his eight-year TV hit, Ms. Rashad has turned up on Broadway as sassy, sexy Sweet Anita, who "turns Jelly to jam" in the musical "Jelly's Last Jam." In her most memorable scene, atop a revolving four-poster bed, the actress wears a garter belt and the barest of teddys as Anita gets acquainted -- well-acquainted -- with the legendary jazz musician and incorrigible ladies' man Jelly Roll Morton.
It takes a little refocusing -- even for Ms. Rashad. When George C. Wolfe, the director of the long-running musical, proposed that she take over the role of Anita -- his response to her request to work with him -- her initial reaction was, "Oh! Maybe I'd better look at that show again."
"Anita is earthy," Ms. Rashad says, in something of an understatement -- someone who bills herself as "a full-hipped, sweet-lipped woman who says what she feels and feels it to the bone." The actress appears less outspoken, even serene -- although there aren't any seductive roues hanging around the dressing room at the Virginia Theater.
But changing skins is what acting is all about, and Ms. Rashad says the transformation isn't difficult -- it's fun, even. "I kinda thought of Nancy Wilson, a brilliant singer, but very earthy and honest; she says exactly what she means. And she's got those feminine qualities: Her hair is always done, her nails fresh, she carries herself just so. It's a kind of sexy femininity we just don't hTC see in the 1990s."
Anita, says Ms. Rashad, sitting before her brushes and lipsticks and a vase filled with pink rosebuds, "is a victim of her own ego, and that's something we all have to deal with, don't we?" Her laugh is part cackle, part shriek, and it erupts often -- a couple of times, in fact, as she repeats the message Mr. Cosby left just before her first performance: When she wasn't at the theater at 5 p.m. to take his telephone call, "He said I must not be as old as he thought I was since I wasn't there doing my makeup." She is 45, which, she takes pains to point out, is actually younger than Clair Huxtable was supposed to be.
Mr. Cosby and Ms. Rashad parted friends -- he's been on location for a film, so he hasn't seen the show yet -- and she has only the kindest of words for Clair ("I never got tired of doing her") and her experience playing her ("a dream come true"). But if there's something that annoys her -- besides the suggestion that Clair was a little too perfect and, maybe, one-dimensional -- it's any idea the proper Mrs. Huxtable has been her career.
Please! There have been other roles. She names four made-for-TV movies she acted in during those years -- even if she might like to forget a couple of them. In 1988, during the television writers' strike that halted production for 22 weeks, she replaced Bernadette Peters on Broadway as the wicked witch in "Into the Woods." During other off-seasons, she's taken an act in which she sings and dances to Las Vegas and to Atlantic City, N.J.
Before "Cosby" and her marriage to the NBC sportscaster Ahmad Rashad -- when she was known as Phylicia Ayers-Allen, combining the surnames of her parents -- Ms. Rashad starred in a daytime soap. Work off and on Broadway included a one-woman show about the writer Zora Neale Hurston ("the most difficult thing I've ever done") and "The Wiz" and "Dreamgirls." She also acted as host for a number of TV extravaganzas, most notably the 1985 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. During the show, she received what had to be that year's most public marriage proposal, made by Mr. Rashad, on the air, during his pre-game commentary for an NFL game.
Years as understudy
Stepping into a role created by someone else (Tonya Pinkins) is a delicate process. "I had many years as an understudy," Ms. Rashad says. "What I learned was the importance of finding your own truth in performance. Oh, you have to be on stage where the other actors are accustomed to the character being, but there's no such thing as one performer to do a role."
She was taught that "an actor shouldn't judge her character"; but assessing Anita's unhappy relationship with Morton, she's sympathetic: "When confronted with the possibility of surrendering herself, she holds back," something, she says, that's "easy for me to understand." Perhaps not in the present tense: In her own life, says the actress, doubling over with one of her laughs, "I've surrendered -- but don't print that, he [Ahmad] shouldn't know it."
One sign is that she changed her name only after her third and present marriage. "I did it because it was the right thing to do," she says, coincidentally made easier professionally "because of the immense popularity of the Cosby show."
But, even without pigeonholing, there is more about Ms. Rashad that is the demure, educated Clair than the brassy, street-savvy Anita -- and not only because the Rashads have five children between them: her teen-age son, three of his children and their 6-year-old daughter. The Allens were a middle-class family in Houston; Ms. Rashad's late father was a dentist. Her mother, the poet Vivian Ayers, is the director of a museum in Westchester County, N.Y. The Rashads live in Westchester, and so does Phylicia's sister, Debbie Allen, the actress, choreographer and director.
Premium on education
The Allen family's four children grew up in an environment where a premium was put on education (Ms. Rashad is a graduate of Howard University) and culture. "My mother taught me to read music when I was 5 years old, and choral speech. Everybody played an instrument. There were always professors and artists visiting and all kinds of books around." A brother, Tex Allen, is a jazz musician, but the youngest, Hugh, is a real estate broker. "Thank goodness," Ms. Rashad says. "There had to be one practical person in the family."
Ms. Rashad was directed by her sister in two television films -- "so I know my little sister is truly brilliant" -- but she has no desire to move in that direction. "I like to sleep at night." Producing interests her, she says, and there are plans for a television film in which she'll also star, "probably in the fall."
One of the plot lines of "Jelly's Last Jam" is Morton's belief that his Creole background and the light color of his skin made him superior to darker American blacks. "That standard of beauty may have come from wanting to emulate former owners," Ms. Rashad says.
"It's something many black people have experienced, in some quarters still do. But I'm a child of the '60s and '70s, a period of self-acceptance and social growth for African-Americans, and we think differently about things."
Years of yoga meditation -- she does an hour every day -- have given Ms. Rashad an inner serenity as well as the slightly dreamy aura that accompanies talk about the future. "I like acting, I love being everything. I know my possibilities are limitless, and I open myself to that every day."