SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
There's a distinguished roster of actors who are women who've played St. Joan since George Bernard Shaw wrote the play just three years after Joan of Arc was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church in 1920 - Dame Sybil Thorndyke, Katharine Cornell, Jean Seberg, Diana Sands, Dame Judi Dench, Gemma Arterton, and now on Broadway, Condola Rashad plays the 15th-century teenager who left her family's farm because she heard voices of saints and the ring of church bells that told her to save France.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "ST. JOAN")
CONDOLA RASHAD: (As Joan) What is my business? Helping mother at home. What is thine? Petting lap dogs and sucking sugar sticks. I call that muck. I tell thee it is God's business we are here to do, not our own.
SIMON: That's Condola Rashad as The Maid of Orleans, who was burned as a witch but became a saint. The Manhattan Theatre Club production has opened at the Samuel Friedman Theatre. It's directed by Daniel Sullivan. Condola Rashad has been nominated for four Tony Awards, including this year for "St. Joan." She also appears in the Showtime series "Billions" and joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.
RASHAD: (Laughter) Thank you. Thank you for having me.
SIMON: What does it mean to you, a young actress, a young African-American actress, to play one of the great roles for women in theater?
RASHAD: What it means for me is I think what it would mean for any young actress of any background, which is that I get the opportunity to, one, step into this amazing piece by Shaw but also to step into these - the footsteps of this great woman who has been misrepresented for many years in many ways. And so it's been quite a transformative process, this play, for me personally.
SIMON: Well, clue us in. How do you feel changed and transformed by the role?
RASHAD: This role has allowed me - unlike any other role that I've ever played in my entire life, this role has opened the door for me to step into myself as a person in a way that maybe I hadn't since I was a kid and just free of everything. I feel much more unapologetically myself these days and just very strong in who I am and what it is that I do. You know, she believed with the most moving amount of faith in her purpose. And so telling her story has allowed me to kind of discover my purpose. And so it's beautiful really.
SIMON: But I must raise this - Joan was brave, Joan was dauntless, but she heard voices. Was she deranged?
RASHAD: No, I don't think she was deranged at all. I think it's very interesting that a woman who has that kind of conviction automatically has to be deranged. That kind of speaks to how our world operates, which is that if we don't understand it, if we don't have the experience, then you must be deranged. And I think that that's something that - we'll see how far that gets us in life (laughter).
SIMON: Wouldn't a man who says, look, I hear the voices of saints telling me to to save France, wouldn't he be approached with some skepticism, too?
RASHAD: Oh, sure, sure, sure, sure, sure. No, I'm not saying it just because she's a woman. And skepticism is one thing, but what I'm saying is is that I don't play her as a mad woman. You can take that away if that's the way that you decide, but that is not the way that I play her. And there's a reason for that. When I did my research, that's not what I saw. I saw someone who was having some kind of an experience that nobody else could relate to. But when you listen to the way that she speaks about it, when you look at the way that she lived her life, when you look at the way that people around her were talking about her, both on her side and both against her, you don't have to agree with her, but she wasn't a mad, raving woman. She was very clear. She was very calm actually.
This is someone who - I'm not a religious person. I don't belong to any religion, but I do have respect for anybody who has faith. I find it very moving. And this is a woman who since she was a young girl loved God, so as cynical as everybody wants to be today, I think it takes a lot of courage for someone to just genuinely love what they call God, whether that's divine energy, whatever you want to call it. This is someone who - she didn't go to church out of fear. This is just something that she loved.
SIMON: You, of course, are from a famous family - your mother, Phylicia Rashad, the actress, your father, Ahmad Rashad, great football player and sportscaster. Did you ever think of becoming a hedge fund manager or...
RASHAD: (Laughter) No, I didn't. I was allowed to kind of find my way growing up, but it's something that even starts back all the way back to my grandmother. You know, she was the first real bohemian artist of my family.
SIMON: Did you do plays with dolls when you were 5 or 6, or how did it start for you?
RASHAD: No, it was more so about - I was with my mother often as a kid, and so she brought me into a lot of rehearsals, and I was able to watch the process happen from the planting of the seed, which is rehearsal, into the flower that grows through performing. And so I was always very intrigued by the work.
SIMON: For reasons you'll understand, I have to ask you this week, did you know Bill Cosby growing up?
SIMON: Any reaction to what's happened?
RASHAD: It's very devastating - all of it. I wish everybody - you know, I wish the women well. I wish his family well. I have no real thoughts on it other than it's a very sad story.
SIMON: Toward the end of the play, after Joan has been dealt with - and I don't think when it comes to the story of Joan of Arc we have to worry about too many spoiler alerts (laughter) after five centuries. But one of the powerful men who is more or less happy to see her go says, don't worry, we've heard the last of her. And then there's another man who says, I wonder. What is it that continues to fascinate so many about Joan?
RASHAD: (Laughter) What is there not to fascinate about Joan? I mean, Joan is a 17-year-old woman who was able to rally thousands of men to victory. There's nothing not fascinating about that, and it will continue to be fascinating. There is nothing more fascinating than a woman who was so true to herself and what it is that she's here to do. And she did it. And so I think that it's the ultimate story of the human spirit and the power of the human spirit.
SIMON: Condola Rashad is St. Joan. Shaw's play now on Broadway with an all-star cast. Thanks so much for being with us.
RASHAD: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF GODDAMN ELECTRIC BILL'S "CROSSFIRE")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.