Best of Spring

Condola Rashad Wants to Bring Joan of Arc Back Down to Earth

“I’m excited about playing her as a human being,” the actress says of her headlining role in a new production of George Bernard Shaw’s “Saint Joan”

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It’s been nearly a decade since a luminous young actress named Condola Rashad turned heads in Manhattan Theatre Club’s off-Broadway premiere of Ruined, the play that earned Lynn Nottage her first Pulitzer Prize. Set in the civil war–ravaged Congo of the early aughts, Ruined cast Rashad — the daughter of Cosby Show alumna and accomplished stage actress and director Phylicia Rashad and sportscaster Ahmad Rashad — as Sophie, a teenager who had been raped with a bayonet and left to die, but didn’t. The following years brought success on Broadway, with Condola starring opposite Orlando Bloom in Romeo and Juliet and earning Tony Award nominations for her performances in The Trip to Bountiful (with Cicely Tyson), Stick Fly, and, last year, A Doll’s House, Part 2.

This spring finds Rashad, 31, returning to Broadway (and MTC) in another iconic, tragic piece: a new production of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan, directed by Daniel Sullivan. Now also familiar to TV fans for playing ambitious assistant U.S. attorney Kate Sacker in Showtime’s Billions, Rashad has been building up her physical and emotional stamina to play the warrior and future saint, whom she has come to regard as increasingly, inspiringly human. Phoning in hours before a recent afternoon preview of Saint Joan, which opens April 25 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, Rashad explained to the Voice how Shaw’s historical heroine both speaks to our time and transcends it.

So, Saint Joan. Had you ever imagined yourself in this role?

I know of actors who have lists of dream roles, but I’m an adventurer; the next role is always the role I’m excited to do. At first, I was just excited by the honor of playing Joan of Arc. Then I met with Dan [Sullivan] — I love Dan, and his vision for the piece was so open, and that’s what really drew me in. He had not made up his mind about who she was and who she wasn’t. He was curious, and that’s a good place to work from, especially with this play.

Had you seen the play before, or read it?

No, but I thought that I knew the story. Once I decided to jump on board with the production, I put the play aside and went about it as if I was writing a thesis on Joan of Arc. I studied everything I possibly could about her, and what amazed me was how little, I think, a lot of us know about her — and the information is there. I remember studying medieval times, but I don’t remember spending much time on her, and that separates her from history and puts her in the space of legend. But she existed. I think it’s interesting that this very powerful woman would be underrepresented in the way we study her.

What intrigued you about Joan as a historical figure, and how do you think Shaw captured that?

I’m most excited about playing her as a human being. She was not necessarily unlike other people, but she knew her purpose and served it.  She could lead thousands of people in an army, but she moved them out of love, not fear. This was a young girl who was not formally educated and who wasn’t a very good politician — she wasn’t trying to be one. I think [Shaw] wrote this play with a great deal of respect for Joan and what she went through, but there are no villains in the play; everybody’s doing what they think is best. And that’s a great lesson for the world we’re living in right now: that there isn’t clear-cut bad and good. That isn’t working for us.

Does playing Joan right now — in the #MeToo era, and given our political climate generally — present special opportunities, or challenges?

That is something that, as an actor, I’m aware of, but I don’t think it would be helpful to try to overplay anything because of the time we’re in. If I stay true to the text, when people come and see it, it will resonate with them, especially because of what’s happening now. You never want the piece to become preachy. There is no perfect time — or every time is perfect — to tell the story of a woman who didn’t need permission from any man or any institution to serve her purpose.

Does race play a role, in this moment? You’re a black actress playing a famously persecuted figure, and the company in this production is pretty diverse.

I don’t think we’re actively trying to prove any point. A white actor wouldn’t play Joan of Arc as a white character; she would play Joan of Arc. It just so happens that my culture is my culture, so naturally I bring that to everything, but it’s not something I feel I need to layer on. I think the beauty of having a diverse cast is that it proves we’re storytellers; no matter what the color of our skin is, no matter what religion we may belong to or what our backgrounds are, it’s our job to tell stories in such a way that you follow us.

Are you pleased with the progress Broadway has made in terms of casting actors of color?

Since I was a kid, definitely. I think that every year we move a little bit further ahead, but we still have a ways to go. That’s the world, and that’s OK — we will keep moving.

How about TV? What drew you to Billions?

With television, you don’t have a fleshed-out character when you jump on board. There’s not a beginning, middle, and end like there is in a play. I think my character in Billions was originally written as a male role, and they just wanted a guest star for the pilot. So whatever I brought into the rehearsal room they thought I could utilize, and that was exciting to me.

You’re also in a new film premiering this month on Netflix: Come Sunday, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor as controversial preacher Carlton Pearson.

It’s very interesting that Come Sunday is coming out around the same time Saint Joan is happening, because there is a connection. It’s obviously not about a woman staying true to her purpose — although my character is doing that. But the focus is on someone who was branded a modern-day heretic, because he reread the scriptures and developed a new understanding that everybody was loved by God, not just people of a certain denomination or religion. Again, people hold on to divisions because they don’t know what to do without them. I’m not a religious person, but I am a spiritual person, and I have great respect for people who have a love for the divine, whatever they call it. I’m very moved by that connection.

Your mother also started her career in the theater, and has done a lot of great work there in recent decades. Do you discuss projects with each other?

I’m very close to my mom — my dad, too — but we don’t always talk about what we’re working on. My mother inspires me with everything she does. As a kid I knew [acting] was something I wanted to do but watching the way she went about it, her work ethic, how disciplined she is — I learned that focus has to be there. You have a great shot at succeeding in this field if you love the work. If you just love the stuff surrounding the work, the glitz and the glamour, you’re not going to last long.

Are you also working on music? What’s the status of your band, Condola and the Stoop Kids?

What happened is I had created all this music, and then I created that band to perform it. There were certain songs we wrote together, but for the most part I had built an outline for an album with this team in Sweden, and then when I came back, I wanted to put a band together to record it. Now I’m back in my music incubator, creating again, which is exciting. There will be something new.

Could you see yourself performing in a musical?

Oh, yeah — I’ve just been waiting for the right one. I saw Passing Strange when I was in college, and that is absolutely the kind of musical I’d want to be part of.

How is your day-to-day regimen affected when you’re doing eight performances a week? I’d guess that Saint Joan could be pretty taxing.

The play is physically and emotionally — I wouldn’t say taxing, but a lot of work. I’ll be wearing armor, for one thing, so there’s quite a lot of physical strength involved. I don’t know that I knew that going in, but I intuitively started training for the role. So for the past four months I’ve sort of been on my own program, going back and forth between cardio and yoga. Building my endurance.

To get back to lessons for the present, just for a moment: If you could get the president and all the members of Congress to see this production, what would you hope they’d take away from it?

That’s a very interesting question. Hmm. I mean, there are so many things I would hope our current president would take away from this play. But I guess I’d want them to take away from it what I hope everybody would take away from it. I want people to be moved by it, to be inspired by it, to feel a connection to Joan — because Joan had a connection to the source, if you want to put it that way. Again, to her purpose. I think there’s a Joan in everybody. That’s what I hope people take away. That everybody, no matter who you are or what your background is, you have the same potential as the next person for making your own connection to yourself.

The Village Voice is celebrating the season’s arts and culture highlights throughout the week of April 16, 2018. For full coverage to date, visit our Best of Spring Arts 2018 page.

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