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August Presence

One season after her Tony win, Phylicia Rashad turns mystical with August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean.

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How does this play feel different from others you’ve done?
It’s different because it’s an August Wilson play, let’s just put that there right now. He never writes a line for the sake of appearing clever or hip. He’s a bard.

Tell me about the woman you play, Aunt Esther.
Aunt Esther is the spiritual adviser of many people, and you hear about her in the other plays in this cycle. She holds the memories of hundreds of years of people who have come across the Middle Passage—people who made it, and some who didn’t.

You were the first African-American woman to win a Leading Role Tony.
Which I did not know, by the way! I said, “What happened? No one was ever nominated before?”

What does it take to win one?
It takes effort and grace.

Do you feel pressure after that?
I’m still trying to figure out what I’m experiencing! As an actor, I can tell you from experience, you can be onstage saying things you don’t even understand. It’s not always the case that it’s an August Wilson play. It’s not always the case that it’s Raisin in the Sun. It’s not always the case that what you’re performing will translate and mean something. When that happens, it’s like, “Glory hallelujah! Thank you.”

Gem of the Ocean, Walter Kerr Theater; previews October 22, opens November 11.


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