One of Houston’s favorite daughters, television, film and theater star Phylicia Rashad comes home this week for art, but she plans on indulging in many memories of the “grace-filled time” growing up in Houston while she’s here.
The award-winning actress, theater director and educator will join the Houston Symphony for a newly adapted, semi-staged concert version of Beethoven’s masterpiece and only opera, Fidelio, serving as the opera’s narrator. It becomes a very special performance for Rashad, as many years ago another narrating role right here in Houston first led her to become an actress.
A Natural Narrator
“All of this started when I was in the sixth grade,” Rashad said in a recent phone interview about the upcoming concert that brings back to her birth city. “I was chosen to be the mistress of ceremonies for the music festival of elementary schools throughout the city in a program that took place at the Houston Coliseum.”
She still remembers the teachers that helped her prepare and rehearse for that great responsibility and what a large influence that role would have on her future. “When I was 11 years old and narrated that festival, I know that’s when I decided I would become an actress," she said.
We, of course, know the many characters Rashad has taken on stage and screen since then, but once in a while she again picks up the narrator title for musical performances. In fact, it was a recent appearance with the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center as narrator for Aaron Copland's "Lincoln Portrait” that she believes might have led to the invitation from the Houston Symphony for this new concert.
“It was an incredible experience, one of the most gratifying experience ever,” Rashad said of working with the National Symphony Orchestra. “To speak Lincoln’s words that carry such depth and meaning today with music, that’s so powerful and beautiful.”
For this adapted version of Fidelio, developed by Houston-based director Tara Faircloth, working closely with symphony music director Andrés Orozco-Estrada, Rashad will not recite characters’ text from the opera but instead excerpts of speeches, poetry and literature from poets, philosophers and leaders, including Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Edna St. Vincent Millay.
Rashad was not too familiar with the opera before being asked to narrate, but certainly finds both a timeliness and universality to this story of a woman’s fight for freedom for her wrongly-imprisoned husband.
“There are certain things that will always be timely. Reflections on the meaning, the purpose of life and human existence, certain questions that are asked today were also asked thousands of years ago," she said.
Speaking with Rashad makes it clear how much at her core she lies both an advocate for and educator about art. Perhaps she always has been since she first took on that mistress of ceremonies role in the sixth grade.
“Art is essential to human existence and expression,” she said. “You think about your own self as a child. As soon as you could stand up and walk you were dancing. You sang because children do sing without being taught; they make melodies before they talk. You drew pictures before you could read. This is fundamental human expression and do view it any other way is to miss it’s essence beauty and importance.”
Growing up in an artistic and scientific household first laid the foundation for this live-long cherishing of the arts. Her mother is the award-winning poet and playwright Vivian Ayers and her father, Andrew Arthur Allen, was a dental surgeon. Actress, director and choreographer Debbie Allen is her younger sister.
Rashad says she climbed trees and played with friends in their Third Ward neighborhood, but her normal everyday existence also included a home where she constantly encountered art and artists.
“There was always books on different subjects, always music. There was always artists, musicians and professors in the house. They were always there and that was just ordinary and natural for me,” Rashad recalled.
Perhaps her continuing success first came from this art-loving and art-making home, but she also remembers that whole Third Ward community as a place that pushed her to strive and achieve. Even now she can remember all the names of her favorite teachers at Jack Yates High School, the same school that her father attended.
“There was a sense of community that was so strong and it was always moving the young people forward,” she remembers. “People were with each other. People interacted with each other. When I think about my childhood and years growing up in Houston, it’s like that song that says ‘My soul looks back in wonder.’ Whatever difficulties there were in the world and in society, and Lord knows there’s always plenty of that, it was a grace-filled time.”
And Rashad continues moving forward, nowhere near ready to retire. She recently guest starred in the ABC miniseries When We Rise and has a reoccurring role on Empire. She’ll direct a play in Chicago next and plays a major role in the new Amazon comedy Jean-Claude Van Johnson that has Jean-Claude Van Damme spoofing himself.
“I thought: My god, I’m going to an action heroine,” described Rashad about her reaction when she first learned of the project.
But before heading back out in the world continuing to make art and entertain, she’s excited to make music with the Houston Symphony and plans to take the opportunity to visit old friends and simply walk down Houston’s many memory lanes.
“When I come back I remember with love and I remember with so much gratitude. When I talk to people about the way we grew in Houston, they think it’s fantasy. It’s not fantasy. It was real. I’m so grateful to experience that.”
Phylicia Rashad joins the Houston Symphony for Beethoven's Fidelio on March 31 and April 2. For more information, visit the Houston Symphony website.