In a year in which an emotionally overwrought Halle Berry stood tearfully in front of the Oscar night audience and many Americans joined in a chorus of self-congratulatory hosannas, the media made much of what they hailed as progress for African American actors. Yet this level of achievement isn't as new as it may seem.
For decades, individuals have been breaking barriers and staking out similar territory, if not that precise statuette. The evidence that prejudice persists lies as much in how few of these individuals there have been, as in the fact that their accomplishments are largely forgotten the moment the cameras turn away.
As far back as the '50s and as recently as the '90s, there have been and continue to be performers like Diahann Carroll and Phylicia Rashad. As multitalented actress-singers with decades of credits in theater, film and television, their triumphs are incontestable. But the fact that these two African Americans have achieved what they have in an industry still marred by racism makes their careers all the more impressive.
Carroll and Rashad are now appearing together for the first time in Charles Randolph-Wright's "Blue," opening next Sunday at the Pasadena Playhouse. The lighthearted drama about an upper-middle-class family that owns a funeral home in a small South Carolina town features music by Nona Hendryx and is being staged by playhouse artistic director Sheldon Epps.
Carroll made her Broadway and film debuts in the mid-'50s, and in 1968, when her show "Julia" premiered, she became one of the first African American female stars of a television series. In addition to her 1962 Tony award for "No Strings," best actress Golden Globe award in 1968 for "Julia" and Emmy and Grammy nominations, as well as numerous other tributes, she was nominated for a best actress Oscar in 1974--long before Berry's much ballyhooed nod.
Rashad, a veteran of many Broadway productions, is best known for her pivotal role as Bill Cosby's wife on the landmark television series "The Cosby Show," and later on the series "Cosby."
Would Carroll and Rashad have had even greater opportunities if they'd been white? "Without a doubt," Epps says. "And I would also add CCH Pounder. These extraordinary actresses have had great careers, but frankly, not the kind of careers they deserve, and not the kind they would have had if they hadn't been African American actresses.
"These actresses have won Tony awards and done films and major television shows," Epps continues. "But if you take any single one of those things that either one of those women did and thought of that as a launching pad, what would that launching pad have resulted in if they'd been white? And as much as they've done, I guarantee you that either one of those women would've had 10 times the opportunities that they've had if they'd been white.
"Any white actress who'd been on [one of] the most successful series in the history of television would constantly be on a series now. Where is Phylicia's series? Why haven't they developed a series just for her?"
Nor are actors the only ones who continue to run into invisible barriers. "It's also something that Charles Randolph-Wright and I talk about, because we both have had really wonderful careers," says Epps, playhouse artistic director since 1997. He conceived and directed the musicals "Blues in the Night" and "Play On!" The former was nominated for a best musical Tony and the latter received three Tony nominations and was filmed for PBS' "Great Performances."
"People look at you and they think, 'Well they've done such extraordinary things,' " Epps continues. "But I think that neither Charles nor I have had some of the opportunities that we would have had if we hadn't been black director-writers."
Carroll and Rashad sit on white patio furniture in a tiny courtyard behind the Madilyn Clark studios in North Hollywood, amid aging latticework and scrappy bougainvillea. Outshining their surroundings like visiting royalty, they lend an aura of elegance to the otherwise modest location, where they are rehearsing "Blue."
Indeed, to engage in conversation with these two great American actresses is to glimpse the difference between true stardom and the mere celebrity that often passes for it. It isn't so much their ageless beauty that strikes you, though that is stunning, but the combination of charm, intelligence and integrity that so clearly goes with it.
As one would expect with artists of this stature, they know the importance of choosing their projects carefully. "This is a well-written play with many layers and textures," says Rashad, who starred in two previous productions of "Blue" directed by Epps, the 2000 premiere at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., and last spring's staging at the Roundabout Theatre Company in New York. "It's subtle and that's the kind of work I like to do."