Joan of Arc, Superstar? Not to the Woman Playing Her

Condola Rashad on the set of “Saint Joan” at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater.

The historical Joan of Arc was a peasant, a soldier, a mystic and a martyr. A shepherdess who heard the voices of saints in the sound of church bells, she led the French army toward decisive victories in the Hundred Years’ War before being tried for heresy, witchcraft and cross-dressing. In 1431, she was burned at the stake, and then she was burned again.

With abiding faith, unflappable courage and serious sense of squad goals, she demanded the respect of the men around her, and she won it. Her conviction was overturned posthumously, her sainthood confirmed. Now she is back on Broadway in George Bernard Shaw’s “Saint Joan,” which opens April 25 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater, starring the three-time Tony nominee Condola Rashad.

The role beckons any actress with a line in zeal and glow; Uta Hagen, Diana Sands and Lynn Redgrave are among those who’ve snagged it. And 2018 seems like an especially good time for an active, unapologetic heroine who is neither condescended to nor sexualized.

Ms. Rashad, a graceful and electric performer, is the ninth actress to step into Joan’s battle dress on Broadway. The director Daniel Sullivan cast her, in part, because “Joan is angry for much of the play,” he said, and he counted on Ms. Rashad’s ease, enthusiasm and nobility to keep that anger from turning “rather strident.”

Would a strident Joan be so bad? We won’t know this season. Because Ms. Rashad, 31, doesn’t see Joan as strident. Or even angry. “She’s not angry,” she said, “She’s honest.” She could recognize Joan’s hurt and frustration and passion and clarity and force, but not her anger. “I don’t know that it’s anger,” she said. She said it more than once.

As for “Saint Joan” as a #MeToo play, she wanted it noted that for every man who burned Joan, there were many more who fought with her. “We can’t just look at one side because it feels better,” she said.

I met Ms. Rashad — who has a straight-arrow supporting role in the Showtime series “Billions,” plays a sympathetic preacher’s wife in the new Netflix film “Come Sunday” and leads the alternative band Condola and the Stoop Kids — on a recent afternoon that felt more like winter than spring. Sartorially, she’d split the difference: black coat, flowered pants, turquoise eyeliner.

She had a break from rehearsal — it was a week before previews began, stagehands were loading in the set — and she’d taken a car to a traffic triangle on the Upper West Side. That’s where the city’s Parks Department plunked the Joan of Arc memorial, sculpted by Anna Vaughn Hyatt Huntington in 1915, five years before Joan was canonized, eight years before Shaw wrote his play.

Ms. Rashad led Penny, her bitty, swaggering cockapoo, around the statue, noticing Joan’s feet straining against the stirrups, Joan’s hand clutching the sword she never used, her eyes and face upturned toward her God. “Very appropriate,” Ms. Rashad said approvingly.

The daughter of the actress and director Phylicia Rashad and the sportscaster and former N.F.L. player Ahmad Rashad, she has the preternatural composure of a person who meditates daily, practices yoga weekly and has given up even occasional drinking in order to “feel clearer than I’ve ever felt.” (And while I didn’t think to ask about skin care, she definitely had that Maid of Orléans shimmer.)

She doesn’t mind being practically the only woman in the rehearsal room, if that’s what it takes to tell Joan’s story, she said. (Her cast mates in the Manhattan Theater Club production include Adam Chanler-Berat, Patrick Page and Jack Davenport.) She doesn’t mind being one of the few people who are not white. “Of course I want there to be more people of color in the room, but there’s also the thing of ‘Well, I’m here. Let’s make the most of it,’ ” she said.

When her casting was announced, a few French ultranationalist Twitter users and some bullying Reddit posters accused her of cultural appropriation. She read a few of the comments and then she stopped. The abuse didn’t make her mad. Actually, she mostly felt sorry for the complainers, she said. “You guys are missing out.”

It is tempting to want to poke at Ms. Rashad’s extraordinary poise, to wonder if it’s innate or a necessary adaptation to a business and a culture that doesn’t always applaud female truth-telling. Where does serenity stop and really solid media training begin?

Well, a potential manager once told Ms. Rashad that she was too elegant to play prostitutes, which is an icky way of suggesting that she carries herself with a certain reserve. But she isn’t cold, and she isn’t snooty. I spoke to five directors who worked with her and they threw around nouns like maturity and intelligence and strength and dignity and humanity and authenticity and, in Mr. Sullivan’s words, “a wonderful simplicity.”

So I don’t think the equanimity is an act. Or if it is, she has everyone fooled. Even her mother. The elder Ms. Rashad, speaking by telephone on a break from shooting “Creed II,” said that her daughter had always spoken her mind and that “she has always been given to kindness” and to empathy. She told a childhood story of watching Condola standing in the driveway, waiting for a butterfly to alight on her fingers. The butterfly did.

Still, the denial of Joan’s anger nagged at me. Could Ms. Rashad be great in a great part if she refused to play the full range of it?

Her Broadway roles have included a sweetie-pie Juliet in a muddled Shakespeare, a grief-struck daughter in “Stick Fly,” a melancholy young bride in “The Trip to Bountiful.” She has a strong affinity for good characters (with typical humility she disputes this: “I don’t want to say I’m captain good guy”), and she has the rare ability to make goodness fascinating. When characters act dishonorably, it throws her.

This season, Kate Sacker, the assistant United States attorney she plays on “Billions,” makes some less-than-aboveboard moves, and she found the filming hard. I’d watched her rehearse the first scene of “Saint Joan,” and her Joan had been determined, girlish, joyful. Would she be more?

I worried about it all the way home, from the Upper West Side back to Brooklyn, and then I read the play again. Now I’m pretty sure Ms. Rashad is right about the anger and the character and probably some other things. Joan is good at converting doubters to her cause. Ms. Rashad is, too.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. I had seen her in every play from “Ruined,” her New York debut, to last year’s “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” a canny and assertive turn that brought her toe to toe with Laurie Metcalf and earned her a third Tony nomination. (Here’s her mother on that part: “It was the bomb! My God, girl, where did you get that all from?”) So I knew her as a persuasive performer whose incisive instincts were typically matched by scrupulous technique. She makes you feel and know and warm to her characters without ever showing how she does it.

Because Ms. Rashad doesn’t go in for emotional fireworks. As with Joan and her sword, they are an armament she doesn’t use. Her style, which she honed at the experimental training program at the California Institute of the Arts (she grew up in Westchester and “wanted to be in a place my parents would have to take a plane,” she said) is more grounded and more granular. As Kenny Leon, a frequent director and a family friend said: “Condola never reminds you that she’s acting. She engages you because it looks like she’s not.”

Joan is her first Broadway lead since Juliet. In the fall, when her casting was confirmed, she cleared her schedule and read book after book about Joan of Arc, becoming so fluent in medieval history that she now serves as the play’s unofficial dramaturge. On the day I visited rehearsal, I saw a hand-drawn map of the siege of Orléans. She had sketched it from memory the day before.

Despite her research and her training, Ms. Rashad is not an analytical actor. She believes that every character exerts a particular energy and that it’s her job to “merge with that energy and trust that whatever that energy field tells you, you need to be told,” she said. (She said it while wearing a hunk of black tourmaline that was supposed to connect her to her root chakra.)

So yes, the woo-woo runs deep and it extends to how she sees Joan. “I think she’s someone who had a very high energy quotient,” she said. “She was someone open to her intentions.” Maybe that all sounds pretty New Age-y, but it’s rare to receive three Tony nominations by the time you turn 30, so the woo-woo seems to be working.

To merge with Joan, she has connected not to any righteous anger or Time’s Up timeliness, but to the idea of being called, of aligning herself with a larger purpose. “There is a divine energy and we are all connected to it and we are all made of it,” she said.

Obviously, Ms. Rashad and her character have different to-do lists. Joan was turning around the Hundred Years’ War. Ms. Rashad is trying to prove herself as a Broadway leading lady. No one is going to burn her. Not literally anyway. But she believes that she has been called to this task just as Joan was called to hers.

“I’m also someone doing what I think I’m supposed to do,” she said. “So I do it with intense joy.”

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