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Vol. LXII, No. 40
 
Wednesday, October 1, 2008
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“Everybody in America Has to Find Their Joy”: Rashad, West Discuss Acting, Crisis, Racism

Dilshanie Perera

Actress Phylicia Rashad and Princeton University professor and scholar Cornel West discussed the African American intellectual tradition last Tuesday, with the audience packed into Richardson Auditorium following their every word. As they mused about history and memory, racism, morality, and compassion, the conversation touched on topics such as the current economic crisis, August Wilson’s play Gem of the Ocean, and childhood.

A 2004 Tony Award winner, Ms. Rashad felt the first inclinations to become an actor at age 11. Growing up in Texas during a time of legal segregation, she cites her mother, Vivian Ayers-Allen, as determined not to have her children “grow up emotionally marred” by the pervasive racism of the period.

Recalling the occasion at age 11 when she had been selected to read the libretto from the Musicians of Bremen as well as to serve as mistress of ceremonies at a school event, the she remembered standing in the dazzling spotlight for the first time and speaking to the audience all evening. Overhearing a couple conversing about her performance as they left the auditorium had enlivened her desire to act. “I’ll play in the light, and be beautiful all the time,” she recalled thinking.

It was only later that she would realize the beauty she had experienced on the stage “had nothing to do with how I looked; it was the beauty of communication from the heart.”

Playing Aunt Ester in McCarter Theater’s production of Gem of the Ocean was a unique experience for Ms. Rashad, both in terms of embodying the character, who is a 287-year-old woman who has lived through the brutal history of slavery by the time of the play, which is set in 1904, and also by working with the playwright himself. Having Mr. Wilson in the room afforded an “avenue of entrance to the playwright’s purest intention.”

The challenge lay in finding Aunt Ester’s source of joy, said Ms. Rashad, a joy tempered by “the weight of so much history.”

Finding one’s joy is “what black people in America have to do to stay sane,” interjected Mr. West, with Ms. Rashad countering, “Everybody in America has to find their joy today.”

If the present condition in the U.S. is one of crisis, Mr. West noted that the African American experience throughout history has been particularly tumultuous, governed by a politics of oppression. He characterized African Americans as “a blues people,” adding that “when a nation has the blues, it needs to learn something from its blues people.”

“Black people began with our voices,” said Mr. West, “because we didn’t have control of anything else, like land or liberties.” As a result, “memory, integrity, passion, and morality” were developed.

What we need to employ in this contemporary climate of duress, are those qualities along with compassion, declared Mr. West.

We withhold ourselves from accessing the greatest qualities of the self, according to Ms. Rashad. “It’s like holding onto [racism] because this tells me who I am,” she said, “but how can you access the freedom and beauty of your own mind if it’s all knotted up with hate, fear, and anger?”

Love requires a certain candor, honesty, and courage in an attempt to ensure that people are treated decently, noted Mr. West. “We’ve been wrestling with institutionalized greed, contempt for the vulnerable, and the politics of fear for the past eight years, and we’re at a moment where it’s running out of gas,” he said.

The hypocrisy becomes stark when we see politicians rushing to help “plutocrats in trouble, but not children in trouble,” and it’s a hypocrisy that African Americans have seen “for centuries,” according to Mr. West.

“I sympathize with the folks on Wall Street, because they’re losers now too, but two weeks ago, they were indifferent,” he continued.

Noting how abruptly the discourse changes, Mr. West said that people support laissez-faire capitalism because they’re “just winning at the moment” but when the market collapses, “then you want to be a socialist.” Murmurs of agreement could be heard throughout the auditorium.

Ms. Rashad recently played the character Big Mama in a Broadway production of Tennesee Williams’s play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Mr. West’s latest book, Hope on a Tightrope, which is due out in November, will discuss the status of the future alongside these themes and others.

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