Notably known for her triple-threat artistry, Phylicia Rashād's star power extends far beyond Hollywood. The epitome of style, grace, intelligence, and of course, Black excellence, her infectious presence captivates audiences spanning generations. As the "Mother of the Black Community," a title given to the Houston native at the 2010 NAACP Image Awards, there's no denying she is a timeless treasure, a titan of the stage and the screen.
She attributes the training and education she received while attending Howard University as a catalyst for honing her skills as a groundbreaking performer. Another milestone moment in 1968, during her undergraduate enrollment, the Tony Award-winning actress became a part of the Divine Nine as a member of the Alpha Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated®.
"When I came to Howard University and saw this sorority, these were young women who were self-directed. They were intelligent, jazzy, and smooth. You could see they had chosen paths for themselves in life, and they knew where they wanted to go. And I liked that a lot," the 72-year-old said.
To delve deeper into her beloved sorority's vision and impact, Ms. Rashād is the narrator behind Twenty Pearls. A documentary directed by Deborah Riley Draper examining the organization's influential effect and involvement in historical turning points, including the civil rights movement, women's rights movement, and World War II. 21Ninety had a chance to speak with the living legend, and as always, regardless of what she has in the works, the former Empire star continues to break new ground.
Dontaira Terrell: How did attending Howard University cultivate the woman you are and yet still becoming?
Phylicia Rashād: It was a continuation of life as I'd always known. It felt very familiar to me and very right. My parents, siblings, and grandparents who attended college all went to HBCUs. I grew up under this influence. Texas Southern University is in the heart of the community, which I grew up in. I went to college before I went to elementary school because I was in the nursery school at Texas Southern University before I went to first grade. So I was always in the HBCU environment.
But what was different was that Howard [University] was away from home. I was without the comfort of home and really being on my own in a way. As a college student, you have to manage your time, and you have to drive your own bus, so to speak. For the first time I met people, it was not the first time in my life, but now I was going to school with people from many different places. Not in my neighborhood or the part of the city of Houston in which I grew up. That was new and exciting. I also had textbook courses and applied arts courses in an HBCU setting. It can't get better than that.
DT: I'm curious, did you ever consider attending another HBCU or another university?
PR: Oh Yeah. When I was applying, I applied to Hampton, and I applied to Fisk. My father told me you could apply anywhere you want to, but you're going to Howard. He was pointing out the College of Fine Arts at Howard University and its academic standing. The fact that the Howard University players had traveled under the sponsorship of the United States State Department to Ireland, he was saying, 'This is where you want to go.'
DT: When I think or hear Phylicia Rashād's name, the first thing that comes to mind is a woman who leads her life with intentionality. So why was it important for you to become an AKA?
PR: I had been a member of a girl's club in high school, but I left that club because I felt the sponsors did not respect our choices of young pledges. And for me, that was a big deal. I grew up in a home where my thoughts and opinions were not stifled. So I had a great regard for my own intelligence and ability to choose.
Plus, when I was a young girl, my aunt Betty was a student at Texas Southern University, and she had pledged Alpha Kappa Alpha -so that seed was kind of planted there.
DT: You were coined as the "Mother of the Black Community," and you're known as such an iconic trailblazing force that people are only privy to your success, but not your failures or rejections. Can you speak to one of your greatest failures and why it was an important aspect along your path to success?
PR: I was an original cast member of The Wiz, and I was in the chorus, and I was changing costumes all night long going into different scenes, but I was also the understudy for Glenda, The Good Witch of the South. Dee Dee Bridgewater was playing the part every night, and I was her understudy. When Dee Dee was leaving to go to the LA company, I don't know why I imagined I would be chosen to assume that role permanently as a principal player. I wasn't chosen; instead, the second understudy was chosen. It was very disappointing.
This would happen again in Dream Girls, where I was understudying a role that I would not be selected for as a principal player. Instead, the second understudy would be chosen, but I learned a very important lesson. I learned detachment. I had learned the most important thing was what my mother had always been trying to tell me, 'You do what you do with love and with purpose, and not having any expectations about what will come of it.'
An experience like that could do one of two things depending on how you are. It can break you, or it can support you in moving forward with a better understanding and a stronger intention.
DT: Have you reset your sights on new goals you would like to achieve at this stage and phase in your life?
PR: Oh, yes, I have. Most definitely. There are some projects I want to realize, and I feel very close to that. I feel very close to having that happen, but my mother also taught me that it's good not to say too much. You hold it to yourself and don't dissipate the energy by talking about it too much.
DT: What has been your greatest joy in motherhood?
PR: Oh my goodness. Just having them. I think it was with the birth of my son, my first child, that I began to feel beautiful. And all of a sudden, life had another meaning. It had a greater purpose. You feel differently about your body because you understand your body in another way that your body is a real gift. To be able to bring forth another human being and to nurture that person from your own body. That's a plan I didn't make. That's a design that I didn't create but that I'm a part of.
My children taught me a lot. Then comes the part where they teach you that you have to let go. Everybody grows, and they're going to make choices that you wouldn't necessarily make for them. However, those choices have to be respected, and sometimes it's not easy. So you never stop learning, and you never stop growing.
Be sure to watch Twenty Pearls now streaming on Comcast's Black Experience on Xfinity platform.