When Condola Rashad dashes into her local coffee shop in Bushwick, Brooklyn, she’s already got her own coffee ready to go in a thermos. You feel Rashad often shows up with what she needs: There’s an air of alert, laughing practicality about her that makes you feel vigorously brushed after you meet with her. Rashad often tells a story of being around her famous actress mother, Phylicia Rashad (her father is the football player turned sportscaster Ahmad Rashad), when Phylicia was acting in Atlanta. Nine-year-old Condola would act as her mom’s assistant, making sure she got up from naps and had her tea before going onstage. And that air of cheerful, time-to-go-to-work efficiency hasn’t left her.
Her jovial pluck makes her an unlikely contender to join the pantheon of Broadway’s great dramatic actresses, yet Rashad has staked out just that territory. At 31, she already has three Tony Award nominations—for Lydia R. Diamond’s Stick Fly, Horton Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful, and, most recently, Lucas Hnath’s “sequel” to a Henrik Ibsen classic, A Doll’s House, Part 2. In 2008, she was in Lynn Nottage’s searing war tragedy Ruined, playing an 18-year-old Congolese woman trying to survive in hell; in 2013, she was poor, doomed Juliet opposite Orlando Bloom’s Romeo. This season she’s taking on George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan, playing one of the theater’s iconic parts: Joan of Arc, the God-struck warrior who drove the English out of France. The other actresses who have tackled the role include Uta Hagen, Joan Plowright, and Lynn Redgrave. “I don’t want to say scared of, I want to say challenged by,” she says of her predecessors. She remembers when she found out about the book Playing Joan, a collection of essays by the role’s great interpreters. But rather than daunting her, the weight of the part actually sealed Rashad’s commitment to it. “I’m going to get that book; I’m going to read it the day after we close,” she says.
The director Daniel Sullivan had wanted to direct Joan for a while before the project came together for Manhattan Theater Club, where it will open on April 25. The play’s ideas couldn’t be more momentous—it burrows into deep questions about nationalism, faith, and sacrifice, and Shaw usually sees such lofty themes through his ironic eye. But, Sullivan says, “Shaw falls in love with Joan as he’s writing the play; through all the arguments and disquisitions, there’s this obvious adoration for his central character.” Clearly, then, you can’t conceive of doing Joan unless you have your Joan, and Sullivan only realized he’d found her while seeing A Doll’s House, Part 2. “I was looking for someone who had a kind of strength,” he says, “someone who was plainspoken and honest. I had always admired Condola, but I was struck by the straightforwardness of what she was doing, and I suddenly thought it was necessary.”
Rashad’s own journey has itself seemed a little heaven-sent. All that struggle and desperation you associate with the acting life? Nope. There was not even a summer between acting school at California Institute of the Arts and her big break. Her mother remembers the moment it happened. “After school, she came home and she took a job as a hostess in a restaurant near Lincoln Center. ‘Ma,’ she said, ‘don’t make any calls for me. I’m doing this on my own.’ And then one day, she came home beside herself. ‘I got it! I got it!’’’ The show she got was Ruined, which went on to win award after award, including a Pulitzer. Condola’s career took off, Hollywood came calling, and now she’s playing the tough Assistant U.S. Attorney Kate Sacker on Billions and starring in the film Come Sunday opposite Chiwetel Ejiofor as a renegade preacher.
“Just by nature,” she says, “I’m excited by work, that’s what drives me.” And so work has loved her back, streaming toward her, attracted to that voracious appetite. Her mother remembers a hundred little indicators that Condola would be an actor, including an on-the-fly problem-solving moment during a dance recital when she was about seven (“She just tore that little wrap off, and I thought, Oh, okay”) and a barn-burning solo at a school concert. But she’s most thrilled by her daughter’s towering desire to work. “I’m happiest of all about that—to be able to say that she’s a disciplined performer.”
To prepare for Joan, Rashad is trying to get familiar with the woman behind the myth. “A lot of people know about Joan of Arc, but they don’t know that we have direct quotes of hers. They don’t know her trial is literally documented!” Rashad sounds shocked that somehow the high school curriculum ignores this bolshie, take-no-nonsense heroine who bypassed male authority. “It’s a bit convenient, isn’t it?” asks Rashad. “That though she’s real, we learn about Joan in terms of folklore?”
In an industry that put the “white” in Great White Way, Rashad has brought down the equivalent of Joan’s holy sword, staking out a place not just in the national eye, but in the classics. Her contagiously passionate nature leaps over petty concerns like Isn’t that a black woman playing a white woman’s daughter? The more you talk to Condola, the more you realize that this glowing, excitable, wide-eyed woman is the only logical choice for the fiery, rosy-cheeked French peasant Joan.
For Condola, the part of Shaw’s play that echoes most deeply in her soul is the “unbelievably hopeful idea that every person has the potential to connect to her Source. You don’t need permission! That’s incredibly empowering, especially in this time.” Rashad is so bone-deep optimistic that she got engaged to her actor fiancé, Sebastian Vallentin Stenhøj, while playing in A Doll’s House, Part 2—a bleakly cynical comedy about a failed marriage. But as with everything else in her life, she’s forging ahead undaunted, fully prepared, and propelled by an inner flame that won’t go out.