For more than 40 years, legendary actress Phylicia Rashad has been a fixture in Black America (and in pop culture at large) as one of the most accomplished actresses in the industry. Ever since she made her debut on the 1976 TV series Delvecchio, as Ventita Ray, Rashad’s work has been critically acclaimed. Displaying a distinct versatility and acumen, Rashad’s length and breadth of acting work has placed her among the upper echelon of artists. On the stage, her Broadway credits include Into the Woods (1988), Jelly's Last Jam (1993), Gem of the Ocean (2004) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (2008). In film, she has appeared in Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored (1995), For Colored Girls (2010), Good Deeds (2012), Creed (2015) and Creed II (2018).
Not only has Rashad left an indelible mark on audiences in front of the camera, she also directed several Broadway plays, including August Wilson's Gem of the Ocean at the Seattle Repertory Theatre, August Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles (2014 NAACP Theatre Award for Best Director), Fences and Our Lady of 121st Street. While she wields a remarkable resume, she will always be fondly remembered for her iconic role as Claire Hanks Huxtable on The Cosby Show.
Without question, The Cosby Show was one of the most beloved and successful sitcoms of all-time, running from 1984 until 1992. The sitcom not only revitalized the genre, but it showcased an upper-class Black family that intentionally challenged the stereotypes and tropes that were constantly perpetuated by Hollywood.
Phylicia Rashad gave the country some much needed #BlackGirlMagic during the Reagan years, playing the stern, fierce, loving matriarch of the Huxtable clan. She presented a different kind of Black woman that was never seen before on network television. With unquestionable prowess, she brought the beauty and power of Black feminism to mainstream TV. As a modern, educated and professional Black woman, she balanced being a wife, a mother and a successful attorney. She was not subservient by any means but demanded equality in marriage and in her career. Because of this role, she was given the title "The Mother" of the Black community at the 2010 NAACP Image Awards. Claire Huxtable is the “holy grail” of mothers that all actresses, regardless of race, who came after her are judged by. She set the bar.
Surprisingly, of all her accomplishments, including a Tony Award for Best Performance by a Lead Actress in a Play for portraying Lena Younger in A Raisin in the Sun and several NAACP Image Awards, one prize that has eluded Ms. Rashad is the coveted Emmy award. During the heyday of The Cosby Show, she was nominated consecutively in 1985 and 1986. When A Raisin in the Sun was developed into a “made for TV’ movie, she again was nominated in 2008 for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or Movie but, once again, she left empty handed. After receiving another nomination this year, the questions is: “Will Phylicia Rashad finally win an Emmy?”
Ms. Rashad is nominated for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama category for playing Beth Pearson’s mother, Carol Clarke, in the NBC hit This Is Us. The episode entitled “Our Island Girl” is actually a full-circle moment for both actresses. Beth, who is played amazingly by Susan Kelechi Watson, was a former student of Rashad’s at Howard University’s Department of Theatre Arts. (Rashad is also an alum of Howard.)
After learning about the biographies of the other characters, “Our Little Island Girl” is the back story of Beth Pearson. Beth travels back home after receiving the news that her mother was seriously injured. While back at home, she rediscovers her love of ballet, which has been one of the main causes of their tense relationship. As expected, Ms. Rashad gives a riveting, scene-stealing performance as a mother coming to terms with the rocky relationship she has with her daughter. Rashad conveys the vulnerability and complexity that exists between her and Beth, as an extremely demanding mother who Beth and her cousin Zoe Baker, played by Melanie Liburd, call “Mama C.” After years of turbulence between the two, Beth and “Mama C” eventually make peace with each other. Watching Ms. Rashad perform on This Is Us is watching a master, a savant, at work. Undoubtedly, her latest Emmy nomination is well deserved.
The curious case of Phylicia Rashad never winning an Emmy Award in her distinguished career is further proof of the fact that Black women are rarely acknowledged for their talent and contributions to the entertainment industry. Black actresses who have won Emmys are few and far between. Isabel Sanford won for The Jeffersons in 1981 becoming the first Black woman to win Lead Actress in a Comedy Series. Jackée Harry won for Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series for her role in 227 and is still the first and only Black woman to win in the category. Viola Davis became the first Black Woman to win an Emmy as Lead Actress in a Drama Series for How to Get Away With Murder in 2015. Gail Fisher won for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series for Manix 1971, Alfre Woodard won in the same category for Hill St. Blues (1984), Mary Alice won for I’ll Fly Away (1993) and Thandi Newton won for Westworld (2018).
Other winners include Beah Richards, a two-time winner for Frank’s Place (1988) and The Practice (2000), Uzoamaka Nwanneka "Uzo" Aduba for Orange Is the New Black (2014 and 2015) and Tiffany Haddish for Saturday Night Live (2017), making a total of nine Black women to win Emmys for their work in TV in the 70-year existence of the Academy.
The competition is stiff to say to the least for Phylicia Rashad. She is up against Jessica Lange (American Horror Story: Apocalypse), Carice van Houten (Game of Thrones), Laverne Cox (Orange Is the New Black), Cicely Tyson (How to Get Away With Murder) and Cherry Jones (The Handmaid’s Tale), all tremendously gifted actresses.
While we hope that Phylicia Rashad takes home the prize at this coming Emmy Awards in front of her fans and peers alike, if she doesn’t, it will not be a blemish upon her track record as one of the greatest actresses in the last 40 years. It would be more of an indictment upon the Emmys and all of the other organizations that have historically failed to recognize the brilliance of African-American women as top-tier actor within the guild. Phylicia Rashad’s legacy is already etched in stone as a cultural icon. Win, lose or draw, Ms. Rashad will forever be the “Mother” of the Black community.
Photo by: Ron Batzdorff/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images