Condola Rashad: Magic Lady
Photography by Nathan Johnson
Written by Suzy Evans
Condola Rashad doesn’t take the stage in A Doll’s House, Part 2 until 50 minutes into the show. When the play begins, she waits backstage in her dressing room, her monitor turned down low so she can sit in silence for about 20 minutes before she needs to get into costume. She doesn’t even see her costar Laurie Metcalf, who plays original Doll’s House heroine Nora, before her entrance, as she wants their onstage interaction to feel organic. After all, it has been 15 years since their characters have seen each other in Lucas Hnath’s imagined sequel to Ibsen’s 19th-century classic, and preparing for the intellectual showdown requires all her concentration. As the other characters spar onstage, she needs to stay focused.
“I find myself getting caught up in the arguments as Condola, but then that takes me out of what it is that I have to do,” she says. “I’m a big thinker—I get in my head. I need to cool down so that when I go out onstage, I can go back and forth in this tennis match.”
Rashad plays Emmy, Nora’s daughter who has become an adult in the time that have passed since Nora slammed the door on her children and her husband at the end of A Doll’s House. While Nora bemoans the confines of marriage, Emmy is newly engaged and looking forward to a life of wedded bliss, something her jaded mother sees as naive and innocent. Rashad is only onstage for one scene, in which she squares off with Metcalf, and she has earned her third Tony Award nomination for best featured actress in a play.
And even though this is her third time on the awards season rodeo, Rashad says it feels different. She earned a nomination for her 2011 Broadway debut in Lydia R. Diamond’s Stick Fly, which closed by the time the Tonys came around and Rashad was the only person from her company recognized. She earned another nod for her performance in The Trip to Bountiful in 2013, but her focus was on her leading lady, Cicely Tyson, or “Miss Tyson,” who won the Tony that year. But this season, everyone in her cast (Metcalf, Chris Cooper, Jayne Houdyshell) is nominated, as well as the play and director Sam Gold. “In a weird way, this kind of feels like the first time,” she says.
For one thing, it’s her first Tony season with a publicist, who has her doing daily press and interviews, including this phone chat before a Friday evening show. “It’s all good!” Rashad says with a laugh as I joke that I’m just adding to the “grind” she’s on. “It’s all an experience.”
Rashad was last on Broadway in 2013 opposite Orlando Bloom in Romeo and Juliet, and she had been itching to get back onstage, as she has a rule for herself that she won’t let three years pass without doing theatre. Producer Scott Rudin called her up about doing A Doll’s House Part 2, and she crossed her fingers that it would work out with her shooting schedule as assistant U.S. attorney Kate Sacker on Showtime’s Billions.
“The minute I read the play, I just knew this was something I had to do,” she says. “I was really moved by the fact that the character I was asked to play has such a very different standpoint on life than I did personally, and that’s always something that I like to do. I like to go far away from my own world view and really get into the mind of someone that feels the complete opposite.”
Though Rashad and Emmy do have one thing in common: “I’m engaged actually so I think it’s hilarious that I”m doing this play!” she says. (Her fiancé is fellow actor Sebastian Vallentin Stenhøj.)
“Emmy lives her life in a pretty conservative way, and she finds freedom in being conservative,” she explains. “I’m a very liberal person myself. If I was talking to this person today, I would find that we live our lives very differently…I have a lot of conservative friends and to me, what it means being a liberal, is that I do have conservative friends. Because I don’t need you to be liberal for me to be your friend. You can live your life however you want to live your life, as long as you don’t impose on the way that I’m supposed to live my life.”
She also feels like playing Emmy has opened up her perspective and thinks the rest of the world could learn a thing or two about listening to each other from this play.
“How often is it to have four characters who all feel very differently about life and are very passionate about life and they all have to listen to each other?” she says. “They all have their moments to speak their minds, and I just thought, especially with the way our society is right now, that this is where we’re at. We have a lot of different opinions in the air and it’s going to get to a point where we’re going to have to start listening to each other.”
While her character’s life choices could be seen as confining—choosing to be a wife and mother instead of have a career—Rashad believes that it’s all about being able to make a decision for your own life.
“Every woman’s choice should be valued,” she says. “That’s something that I got from it and I really was moved by. I even thought differently about someone like Emmy, and it made me feel even more compassion for someone who chooses to live their life the way that Emmy might. It humbled me.”
While Emmy eschews her mother’s example, Condola grew up wanting to be just like her mother Phylicia Rashad, of Cosby Show fame and who will be appearing in A Midsummer Night’s Dream as part of Shakespeare in the Park next month. “I used to say, ‘When’s it going to be my turn to be a magic lady?’ I used to called actresses ‘magic ladies’ because that’s what it was for me,” says Rashad, who spent countless childhood days backstage and in rehearsal rooms watching her mother work. “My mom was like a transformer. She’d be my mom and then the next thing she’d go onstage and she’d be an entirely different person.”
Rashad says she was her mother’s “assistant” or “sidekick,” noting that she would remind her mom to drink her tea or when to warmup. (She had her mom’s vocal warmup memorized, and now she works with the same voice teacher and does the same warmup.) She grew up being backstage, and when her mother replaced Bernadette Peters in Into the Woods, Rashad was obsessed with playing with the prop cow backstage and was terrified when her mom transformed into the witch in prosthetic makeup.
“I was never really exposed to the gnarlier sider of the industry at a young age and so it was not about any of that,” she says. “The fame or the excitement or the cameras—if that comes, great—but what drew me in was the actual magic that happens behind the scenes, of picking up a play and starting at a table and a month later there being lights and an audience and sound.”
And Rashad surreptitiously made her stage debut at age 8 in a production Blues for an Alabama Sky her mother was doing at Alliance Theatre in Atlanta. During a blackout in a scene transition, Rashad crawled out onto the stage and looked out into the audience. “There was nothing more thrilling than knowing that they couldn’t see me but I was there. And I think that’s when I decided that this is what I was supposed to do.”
She also got to observe stars on the rise like Audra MacDonald, who did A Raisin in the Sun on Broadway with Phylicia Rashad in 2004 when Condola was in high school, and Viola Davis, who was in Everybody’s Ruby at the Public Theatre with Phylicia in 1999.
“These are actors that I remember just as being kind,” she says. “It’s so touching how bright their stars are shining because I remember them from just being backstage.”
And now Rashad is setting her own example in A Doll’s House Part 2. She loves seeing young people out in the audience and hopes that this play resonates with them—much in the same way Ibsen’s first would have in 1879.
“I’m just very happy to be doing this play at this moment, because Ibsen wrote A Doll’s House at the turn of the century. The issues that are present in that play were the seed for what we have now,” she says. “That was contemporary at the turn of the century. The fact that it still stands—what else can I say? There’s not a more necessary time for this play to be done.”
Get tickets to A Doll’s House, Part 2 from $29 on TodayTix.