Phylicia Rashad distinguished herself at the 58th Annual Tony Awards on June 6, 2004, at Radio City Music Hall, by being the first African-American woman to win the coveted award for Best Lead Actress in a Play. This lovely, veteran actress of the screen, TV and theater won for her mesmerizing performance as Lena Younger, in the late Lorraine Hansberry’s powerful drama, A Raisin in the Sun” playing at the Royale Theater, only through July 11.
This accolade was well- deserved by Rashad who completely embodies the character. Whenever she is onstage her performance is absolutely breathtaking. She makes the audience feel all the emotions of the character-the sadness of missing her late husband Walter Lee, and being frustrated and challenged with the different way the generations’ think today. Her daughter Beneatha (beautifully performed by Sanaa Lathan in her Broadway debut) declares that she does not believe in God. Those words cause a very quiet, but upset Lena to slowly come upon her and deliver a powerful slap to her face. With her voice insistent, Lena makes her daughter repeat, “In my mother’s house there is a God.” When Lena is not dealing with Beneatha she has to handle her son, Walter Lee, Jr. (played by Sean Combs, making his Broadway debut). Walter Lee, Jr. wants to make plans for life insurance money his mother will be receiving for his father’s death. His plans include buying a liquor store with some of his friends. Lena is uncomfortable with the idea. She wants to buy a home for the family so they can have a nice place to live. This character goes on an emotional rollercoaster ride throughout the play. The only member of the family who thinks as she does and wants to use the money to buy a home is Walter Lee’s wife Ruth (brilliantly played by Audra McDonald). McDonald picked up her fourth Tony, walking away with Supporting Actress in a play.
This production is a revival of “A Raisin in the Sun”, which was last seen on Broadway almost 50 years ago. I must say that the casting director did a marvelous job. As Rashad speaks, her voice often trembles with emotion. She has the audience feeling her pain and can easily bring tears to their’ eyes.
Experiencing her performance and then witnessing the Tony committee’s acknowledgment of her work, really warms the heart and says that there are some right things going on in the world.
When Rashad received this amazing recognition at the Tony Awards she was very humble. She simply said she did not realize that she was the first, but did not dwell on it. In a one-on-one interview, Rashad said that she did not think of herself in terms of being in a box, as an African-American actress. She felt that people need to stop separating themselves and seeing the beauty in each other in order to stop the confusion in the world.
If you want to see a magnificent production, with an all-star cast that will knock your socks off, you must make plans to see this play. If you have already seen it, go back. Rashad’s Tony Award winning performance, along with McDonald’s, are complimented by an able cast, an incredible director, Kenny Leon and a tremendous story line that focuses on the power of black family to struggle through impossible odds, but still survive. This play and the performances you see will leave you inspired. Although the play is set on Chicago’s Southside in the 1950s, its message is still quite relevant today.
Always soft-spoken and gracious, Rashad gave credit to her parents and grandparents for the strong, loving examples they set for her. Rashad was joined at the Tony Awards by her sister, actress/choreographer/director Debbie Allen, their mother Vivian Ayers and Rashad’s daughter Phyleia. All the family members were very proud of Rashad’s accomplishment. Allen summed it up as she said, “Today is a great day for the Allen family and for our people.”
Rashad will grace the Broadway stage next fall as she stars in August Wilson, Gem Of The Ocean. I’m looking forward to that. Anytime I have seen Rashad onstage, whether she is playing Zora Neale Hurston in Everybody’s Ruby or a tough newspaper editor in The Story she has proven her ability to own a role. Her performances are always a demonstration of her phenomenal gifts.