From the moment she arrived at Lackawanna’s Global Concepts Charter School on Friday in a chauffeured limo, it was clear that actress-director Phylicia Rashad came to listen and to observe.
The guest of Ruben Santiago-Hudson was in town for the weekend to catch up with her dear friend and accept from him the school’s Legacy Award for years of contribution to the national arts scene.
A regal woman, Rashad may be best known for her role as Clair Huxtable on “The Cosby Show,” but it is her theater career that is thriving today. Midway through a run as director of “Immediate Family” at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, Rashad took time to tour the Johnson Street charter school and then chat with drama students in its million-dollar Ruben Santiago-Hudson Fine Arts Center.
Principal Tracey McGee acted as tour guide, climbing the steps between the floors, stopping on each to highlight a lecture hall, third-floor honors student lounge and the inspirational quotations selected by students and stenciled on the walls.
“The students think deeply,” noted Rashad as she pointed to a quote from William Shakespeare: “God has given you one face, and you make yourself another.”
Hopefully, students were doing just that, as many of them were taking Advanced Placement exams, judging from the signs posted outside the closed doors of some classrooms.
After touring the school, the group – composed of Rashad, Santiago-Hudson, his wife, Jeannie Santiago, school administrators and several teachers – took the short walk to the air-conditioned Fine Arts Center. Located in a former Presbyterian church on Roland Avenue, the center is a haven for many of the students who live in poverty.
“The philosophy of the charter school is to integrate the arts back into urban education,” McGee said. “Arts are vital for helping to challenge the kids. It’s transformational for them.”
On Friday, a small group of drama students waited in the center’s Black Box Theater to talk with Rashad about August Wilson’s 1983 play “Fences.” Rashad had directed the play in December 2013 at Long Wharf Theater in Connecticut.
Theater instructor and local actor Chris Kelly had his students prepare by reading the play, which won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the 1987 Tony Award for Best Play. It is about an African-American family in the 1950s and the unrealized dream of the patriarch, who could have been a baseball star.
“ ‘Fences’ was the text that came alive in class. The students really got into it,” Kelly said.
Kelly, who grew up watching Rashad on television, said, “Since then I’ve come to know her as a glamorous Broadway actress and now a director. So I knew her in one way as a child and now I’m exposed to her in a different way.”
The charter school’s awards dinner and gala was held Friday evening at WNED studios on Lower Terrace.
In addition to the award presented to Rashad, the Nanny Award, also created by Santiago-Hudson, recognized “people who have been angels” to the charter school. The award, named after nanny Rachel Crosby, the woman Santiago-Hudson called mother, was presented to Peter and Joan Andrews, benefactors of the school.