Theater
11:00 am
Mon October 28, 2013

Condola Rashad: A Fresh Face To The Classic 'Juliet'

Originally published on Mon October 28, 2013 1:02 pm

Many people might know Condola Rashad as the daughter of actress Phylicia Rashad, who played Claire Huxtable on The Cosby Show, and NFL sportscaster Ahmad Rashad. The 26-year-old got Tony Award nominations for her performances in Stick Fly and The Trip to Bountiful. Now she takes on her first lead role on Broadway in the new production of Romeo & Juliet. Her Romeo is Orlando Bloom of Lord of the Rings fame.

Condola Rashad spoke with Tell Me More guest host Celeste Headlee about making the iconic role her own.


Interview Highlights

On whether interracial romance is a major theme

No, it's not, but it's really cool that people think that because it kind of just shows how far we still have to go. And even we've gotten to a place where it's very P.C. to say, 'It's 2013, we don't care.' But then mind you, when we do an interracial version of it, that's often a huge topic, even though we don't hammer that in. In our production, it's not about it being interracial. It just so happens that I'm Juliet and I'm a black woman, and he's Romeo and he's a white man. But that's not the reason for the feud. That's not why the love is forbidden. So it's very interesting to see how people respond to that.

I won't get into it too much, but when I first started playing this role of Juliet, I received quite a few nasty tweets, you know. I wasn't angry about it, but it really did wake me up in realizing, you know, there are people who really are not going to be comfortable with this.

On performing Shakespeare while black

Black people have been performing Shakespeare for years. ... But I do believe that there are certain things that black people are taught, whether it is from their own people or other people. They're taught to believe that there are certain things that are just not for them, and that it's not their reality, it's not their world. But it could be. Shakespeare is for everybody.

On finding laughs in tragedy

I think often there can be productions of it where it's played as a tragedy from the very beginning, and that's not our production. Our production, the way we go about it is: In order for anybody in the audience to feel the full impact of these young lovers' death at the end – sorry, spoiler alert, but I think a lot of us know what happens – you have to be able to fall in love with their lives first. You have to be excited to watch them live in order to really feel sad when they die. And so our first act is basically a romantic comedy. It's not false, it's not something we're putting on top of the text to make it funnier. But if you actually just look at the text, it actually is quite hilarious. Some boy just jumps into this girl's garden. There's nothing perfect about that. It's romantic in a very clumsy way.

On Juliet's suicide

What I kind of really focused on with Juliet was: Why does she really kill herself? What is it that she thinks she'll never have if she doesn't go with Romeo? And it's love. And it's not that her parents don't love her, but she doesn't feel that. She doesn't know that because of the disconnect that she has with her mother. Her father has already told her what's going to happen if she doesn't marry Paris. He says, 'Graze where you will, you will not house with me.' And whether he meant it or not, children they take things in like that. ... So you tell a 13-year-old girl that, that's what she's going to believe. And I was thinking about a lot of LGBT youth, and what they go through, and what it is that they feel, and why they're driven to certain ends of their own because they don't feel that they have a way out.

On being raised by Phylicia Rashad

She's tough but she's very, very loving, and very kind, and also very gentle. But she's tough, and you know, I'm very thankful for the way that I was raised. When I was born, that was right smack in the middle of The Cosby Show. But what I remember is my mother took me with her. ... She exposed me to the world in such a way where I was included. And I didn't feel like she chose her career over me. It was very important for her — for me to see her as a professional so that I could appreciate it and see how it actually did help our whole family. ... And also what I remember is what a lot of other kids remember: is coming home and their mother cooking dinner for her family. And that's what my mom did, too, as busy as she was. ... She makes a wicked shrimp gumbo. And also she has the best peach blueberry cobbler.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

Many people might know Candola Rashad as the daughter of actress Phylicia Rashad who played Clair Huxtable on "The Cosby Show" and NFL sportscaster Ahmad Rashad. She got Tony nominations for performances in, "Stick fly," and, "The Trip to Bountiful." And now the 26-year-old actress takes on her first lead role on Broadway in the new production of "Romeo and Juliet." And her Romeo happens to be Orlando Bloom of "Lord of the Rings" fame.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROADWAY SHOW, "ROMEO AND JULIET")

ORLANDO BLOOM: (As Romeo) The exchange of thy love's faithful vow for mine.

CONDOLA RASHAD: (As Juliet) I gave thee mine before thou didst request it. And yet, I would it were to give again.

BLOOM: (As Romeo) Wouldst thou withdraw it? For what purpose, love?

RASHAD: (As Juliet) But to be frank, and give it thee again. Yet I wish but for the thing I have. My bounty is as boundless as the sea, my love as deep. The more I give to thee, the more I have, for both are infinite.

HEADLEE: Candola Rashad joins us now to talk about this modern biracial adaptation of the Shakespearean love story. Welcome.

RASHAD: Hi, thank you.

HEADLEE: You started out playing piano, right? Classically trained pianist?

RASHAD: Yes, yes, I started training when I was - I think I was about four or so, my mother got me my first teacher.

HEADLEE: When did you cross over into drama, into acting?

RASHAD: I had always known that was something that I wanted to do. I had done a few little plays here and there in high school, but I really was just focused on music for most of my early life. And then when I went to college, that was when I decided that I wanted to major in theater.

HEADLEE: What was your mother's reaction, 'cause I know a lot of parents who are in acting and the one thing they tell their kids is don't go into this business? What did your mom say?

RASHAD: Well, I think my mother knew that she probably couldn't keep me away from it because I think she also agrees that it's something that I'm supposed to do. She was able to see that and she just realized that she has the opportunity to help me.

HEADLEE: How does she help you? Does she actually - rehearse lines with her? Does she coach you?

RASHAD: It's not so much helping with the actual work, but it's helping with how to manage the business side of it. That's what she helps me with. You know, when I first was getting a manager and an agent - she was there to help me, tell me what all of that really meant, and, you know, producers. And she's dealt with all of these things and so she was able to help me in that way.

HEADLEE: So this is the first time in about 36 years that "Romeo and Juliet" has been on Broadway. What does this production bring to the stage that makes it worthy of seeing again?

RASHAD: It's so great. You know, David Leveaux really wanted us and just really helped us to find the life and the spark and the joy in "Romeo and Juliet." I think often there can be productions of it where it's played as a tragedy from the very beginning, and that's not our production.

Our production is - the way we go about it is - in order for anybody in the audience to really feel the full impact of these young lovers death at the end - sorry, spoiler alert, but I think a lot of us know what happens - you have to be able to fall in love with their lives first. You have to be excited to watch them live in order to really feel sad when they die. And so our first act is basically a romantic comedy. And it's not false, it's not something that we're putting on top of the text to make it funnier, but if you actually just look at the text, it actually is quite hilarious. Some boy just jumps into this girl's garden - I mean, there's nothing perfect about that. I mean, it's romantic in a very clumsy way, you know. So it's...

HEADLEE: And slightly creepy.

RASHAD: Yeah, exactly. So there's little elements that are just already set up that are just funny.

HEADLEE: And I'm going to have to say, the gentleman who plays your father is really funny all the way up until he explodes in anger and you realize he's serious.

RASHAD: Chuck Cooper. Yes.

HEADLEE: Yeah and I think that, to a certain extent, makes that moment when he's yelling at you as Juliet, very effective.

RASHAD: Yeah, it's all of a sudden, all of these things start to go in this huge downward spiral and it happens so quickly. I think also it's very relevant right now, in terms of children and their parents and children often not feeling love, 'cause the way that I - what I kind of really focused on with Juliet was, why does she really kill herself? What is it that she thinks she'll never have if she doesn't go with Romeo. And it's love. And it's not that her parents don't love her, but she doesn't feel that. And she doesn't know that because of the disconnect that she has with her mother. Her father's already told her what's going to happen if she doesn't marry Paris. He says, graze where you will, you will not house with me. And whether he meant it or not, children - they take things in like that.

HEADLEE: Especially when they're 13.

RASHAD: Exactly. So you tell a 13-year-old girl that, that's what she's going to believe. And I was thinking about a lot of LGBT youth and what they go through and what it is that they feel and why they are driven to certain ends of their own because they don't feel that they have a way out. And so I was really thinking about that in this production.

HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with actress Condola Rashad about her new Broadway play "Romeo and Juliet." You know, I've seen a lot of reviews and comments about this production focusing a great deal on the interracial aspect of it. And to be honest, I'm confused why. I mean, it feels like, going back to "West Side Story," we already kind of got over that whole interracial hump. What did you think? Did you feel like the racial aspect of it was a major theme?

RASHAD: No, it's not. But it's really cool that people think that because it kind of just shows how far we still have to go. And even we've gotten to a place where it's very PC to say, oh, you know, well, you know, it's 2013, we don't care. But then mind you, when we do an interracial version of it, that's often a huge topic, even though we don't hammer that in. In our production it's not about it being interracial. It just so happened that I'm Juliet and I'm a black woman and he's Romeo and he's white man.

But that's not the reason for the feud, that's not why the love is forbidden. So it's very interesting to see how people respond to that. I won't get into it too much, but I, you know, when I first started playing this role of Juliet, I received quite a few nasty tweets, you know. I wasn't angry about it, but it really did wake me up and realizing, you know, there are people who are - who really are not going to be comfortable with this.

HEADLEE: Let's talk about the material itself because every year that passes we get further and further away from the time when people spoke like this naturally. Is it difficult to resist putting on the so-called Shakespearian accent?

RASHAD: We had a director who kind of hammered in very early that that was not necessary. And also the truth is - is that the text itself, while it is considered classical, it is contemporary in the sense that it's completely true. Shakespeare only writes the truth. So every character, you say it exactly what it is that you feel, the minute that you feel it. And so if you can actually find the truth in what you're saying, it helps it to just organically become more contemporary sounding. So, for example, for me, now when I'm on the stage, because I've had this experience with it and I've kind of strengthened this muscle and I continue to - we continue to grow. I'd say the show is better now than it was two weeks ago only because you can't help but grow in using these words.

HEADLEE: So you're just encouraging people to go at the very end of the run?

RASHAD: No, no, no. I mean, look, it's been great since we started. But I'm just being honest as an actor, you cannot help but things - that's the truth in every single play I've ever done, you know. Actors discover new things as we all discover new things when we go to work every day and we get better at our jobs every single day. It's the same thing.

HEADLEE: We spoke about racism just a moment ago. And I wonder if it goes both ways, because I know that there are some among the African-American community who feel like Shakespeare is not part of their cultural tradition.

RASHAD: Oh, yeah.

HEADLEE: Did you hear from those kind of opinions as well?

RASHAD: I didn't but I know that to be true too. And that's actually very sad because somebody taught them to believe that. There was somebody in their life that taught them to believe that Shakespeare was not for them, when in fact, black people have been performing Shakespeare for years. Our director was telling us of this one production of, I think it was probably Othello, but it happened during, you know, before slavery was abolished. And it was a black man playing. You know, so it's actually been happening. But I do believe that there are certain things that black people are taught, whether it is from their own people or other people, they're taught to believe that there are certain things that are just not for them. And that it's not their reality, that's not their world. But it could be. Shakespeare is for everybody.

HEADLEE: I hope I can ask you a couple of questions just to satisfy my own curiosity.

RASHAD: Of course.

HEADLEE: The first one is - you know, I could not get enough of the cellist who was playing.

RASHAD: Oh, Tahira (ph).

HEADLEE: Totally amazing.

RASHAD: She's everything.

HEADLEE: And you yourself is a musician - I wonder what - when you heard that cello playing, what difference does that make for you?

RASHAD: Once we heard the music, we were like, oh, that's the element, OK, 'cause for me, also I think musically. Before we started rehearsals, I actually - and I do this with a lot of my roles that I play - I created a playlist that to me described the character's journey.

HEADLEE: Do you remember your playlist for Juliet?

RASHAD: So I have a song called "All is Full of Love" by Death Cab for Cutie on there. I have "Beautiful Surprise" by India Arie. I have a song called "Cannot Hear a Word," which is actually a song of mine, I have a band called Condola and The Stoop Kids and that's a song of ours. That song is actually about the place that I go to when I'm not paying attention.

HEADLEE: We you get shut out.

RASHAD: Exactly.

HEADLEE: When you need to shut things out.

RASHAD: And to me, Juliet is someone who I think - who would do the same thing, 'cause she's got such an imaginative mind. So I imagine her to be in - very similar in that way. I've got "Cosmic Love" by Florence and The Machine. I've got "Crazy for You" Adele. I've got "Dirty Child" by Rosey. You know, I've got a bunch.

HEADLEE: Well - so in addition to staring on Broadway, you have pretty darn good taste in music is what comes to mind.

RASHAD: I love music.

HEADLEE: I mean, the other one - since you mentioned your mother saying that you have selective listening, which to be honest, Condola, every parent ever has told their child that they have selective listening. But I mean, I have to ask because the first thing I think - I thought - when I knew I was going to be talking to you was, I can't imagine what it was like to be Phylicia Rashad's daughter. She must be no joke. I mean, she must be a tough mom. Is that true?

RASHAD: You know, she's tough but she's very, very loving and very kind and also very gentle. But she's tough. And you know, I definitely - I'm very thankful for the way that I was raised. And when I was born, it was, you know, right smack in the middle of "The Cosby Show." But what I remember is my mother took me with her, you know. She exposed me to the world in such a way where I was included. And I didn't feel like she chose her career over me. It was very important for her for me to see her as a professional so that I could appreciate it and see how it actually did help our whole family. And so I really appreciate that. And also what I remember is what a lot of other kids remember - is coming home and their mother cooking dinner for her family. And that's what my mom did, too, as busy as she was. You know, I remember her coming home from the studio and grabbing a pot and making some food for me. You know, so...

HEADLEE: What's the best thing that she makes?

RASHAD: She makes a wicked shrimp gumbo. It's like the best thing.

HEADLEE: Nice.

RASHAD: And also she has the most amazing peach-blueberry cobbler. It's amazing. I tried it once, eh.

HEADLEE: You tried making it.

RASHAD: Yeah, I gave mine like a 6 out of a 10, you know, but I'm going to get it. I'm going to get it.

HEADLEE: OK. Condola Rashad, Tony nominated actress. Her latest role is Juliet in the new Broadway adaptation of "Romeo and Juliet." And she joined us from our bureau in New York. Thank you so much.

RASHAD: Thank you.

HEADLEE: And that's our program for today. I'm Celeste Headlee and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Join us tomorrow for more talk. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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