by Jason Forbach
Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations is a new Broadway musical that tells the story of the men that made up this pop super group and their music. Despite all of these men and their ferocious talent, it is one woman’s performance that had me suddenly sitting taller in my seat. With all of this show’s stylish flash and sizzle, “If You Don’t Know Me by Now,” so sublimely sung by this actress, had audience members scrambling through their Playbills to find her name. If you don’t know her by now, you should. Her name is Rashidra Scott.
We spoke with Rashidra recently about her role as Josephine in this show’s ensemble, her journey bringing this character to life and how she manages the pressures of premiering an original musical on Broadway.
Let’s start with how you began creating this role of Josephine for Ain’t Too Proud. Did you feel a different challenge or weight of responsibility when recreating a real person on stage compared to other fictional roles you’ve taken on in the past?
Well, confession, Aisha Jackson originated Josephine in our workshop a couple years ago, so being able to watch her process gave me a solid foundation. Beyond that, I’ve pulled from my mother and the village of women (single & married) who had any hand in raising me. I had the great fortune of growing up around a lot of strong women, watching them balance their own careers and lives while carting us kids between school, community theatre, dance rehearsals, piano and voice lessons.
It’s always a challenge portraying a real person, because you want to make them as well-rounded and three-dimensional as possible, while also honoring their legacy and being truthful to their journey. Josephine could actually come to the show one of these days and have her own thoughts & feelings about this stranger portraying her. My specific Sister Act nun, Finian’s Rainbow sharecropper, or Hair tribe member will never pass judgement on my past performances, because they don’t exist in real life.
You were involved with the show in its out-of-town tryout. How has the show grown or changed on its journey to Broadway? How has your involvement, your role, in the show changed? Can you speak a little about that experience mounting it several times with the intention of bringing it to New York?
The Josephine track hasn’t really changed at all... maybe an addition or cut of a few lines here and there, but overall she’s stayed the same. But seeing the expansion of the other female roles has been exciting. We came in knowing that, obviously, this show is not about the women, but about the men. Going through the journey of our collective presence being expanded has been fascinating and exciting - from Johnnie Mae going from just her scene to singing herself off, the Supremes expanding from one song to a medley in Act 1, and Tammi Terrell going from having a couple brief scenes to an entire duet. The team realized the desire and need for allowing each of us to have more of a presence throughout the storytelling of the show.
Mounting the show in different cities was exhilarating. You never know how a show will be received. We’ve known from day one how special this project is, and we’ve all felt the responsibility of bringing nothing short of our A game in to the room every day. But just because we feel the magic doesn’t always mean audiences will. Experiencing breaking box office records in three cities before we even got to New York was equally exciting and terrifying to me. Performing well on the road doesn’t always translate to a successful NY run, but so far it seems to have strengthened us. It gave us each more time to really explore our characters and find more for and with them.
You’ve originated several Broadway shows, one of them being another mega jukebox Broadway hit, Beautiful. How does this experience compare to that? After working with Des McAnuff, who has elevated this style of jukebox musical story telling yet again with Ain’t Too Proud, what did you see in his process that was new or different compared to other original shows you’ve helped create?
I had the same feeling of “this show is gonna be something special” at the reading presentation of Beautiful and during the workshop of Ain’t Too Proud. While every ensemble member in Beautiful has a feature, they’re production number-based more so than acting. Most of my time was spent with Josh Prince, Jason Howland and the rest of the ensemble. We’d get pulled in to the room to do our book scenes as needed. There seems to be more weight to our ensemble features in Ain’t Too Proud. Des and Sergio like to have everyone in the room at all times, so we’re always on the same page and have access to the same information that’s being discussed in the room, which can be really helpful in figuring out how the characters fit in with each other and inform how we interact with each other.
I think the lesson I’ve been reminded of is the reward of stepping out on faith and walking in your purpose, in spite of any fear or uncertainty. Both Otis and Carole (and practically every artist) have had to pick themselves up from some potentially debilitating personal issues and tragedies, and they didn’t let those circumstances stop them. They were fortified by their own personal tragedies in a way that is nothing short of inspiring. I’ve also learned to trust my voice - to not worry about comparing my sound to anyone else’s, but to trust in my gift and my journey.
Your track in the show has several beautifully overwhelming moments of emotional gravity. Without the build of interacting with fellow actors constantly onstage, how as an actor are you able to key in as Josephine so sporadically, when given the responsibility to deliver so many important emotional mile markers throughout the show?
This question is like you were a fly on the wall in Berkeley! Figuring out how to access the necessary emotions was very isolating for most of the process until New York, I think. I always had to separate myself from everyone else and figure out how to get myself to the necessary emotional depths, particularly for the final scene. I had to think of the saddest things that’ve ever happened to me, sometimes I’d picture my deceased grandfather smiling at me and saying, “I’m proud of ya, baby” in the way only he could. Anything along those lines. Then one night I was about to step out, realizing I just couldn’t get there, and I thought about how this is a tribute to Lamont and how we so often don’t consider the impact we have on people’s lives, but our living is never in vain and to live a life worth honoring every day because tomorrow is never promised to any of us. Creating my own backstory for Josephine, with and without Otis and getting more familiar with all its intricacies, has helped me more than any sad thoughts or stories, though. Playing the honesty of each moment and all that’s behind them is really what best helps me key in.
There is a huge, positive crowd response with this show. It must be thrilling to have such a fired-up, engaged audience. There have also been thrilling reviews. How do you juggle the demands of a new show, with so many eyes on you... not only from expecting audiences but from creatives and critics through previews to opening, all the way to TONY night? Do you feel like you are still in the middle of this marathon?
It’s all absolutely a marathon. While the rehearsal/performance schedule is taxing, I consider myself getting off easy by being in the ensemble. The focus is so heavily on the Classic 5 that the extracurriculars aren’t falling to me. I pretty much live with tunnel vision right now, though. I’m definitely aware that people are very positively responding to the show. I don’t read reviews, at least not while I’m in the show. Whether they’re positive or negative, I like to stay true to the show that we’ve created with our creatives and trust in that without any distraction of “Person X said this moment really stood out” or “Person Y said this moment didn’t work, so how do I make it work?” That’s why we have a creative team - to be the guidance we need in order to create the best show possible. My goal is to always focus on the scene and moments at hand and be honest.
It is a huge, powerhouse cast with a lot of intricate staging and choreography. There are so many talented people both on and off stage. Explain a bit about this company’s dynamic and sense of ensemble.
I know this is said of every cast, because it’s generally true in some sense by nature of what we do and dynamics we have to create, but this cast really is like a big ol’ family. We’ve been there to lift each other up and push each other through some highs and lows of life. We’ve all personally experienced the personal life sacrifices that we touch on in the show. Our understanding of that central theme gives us access unlike any other. Even in our time together, we’ve had cast members miss family funerals, births, celebrations. We’ve each sacrificed within this show and before it. There’s such a high level of respect and appreciation for what each of us brings and what our journeys have been to bring us all to this moment. We all feel purposed to be a part of this show and to take care of each other as best possible.
What is the hardest challenge you’ve had to face in this process? What has been the greatest joy?
The hardest challenge, I think, has been the struggle of existing as a (Black) woman. We so often naturally, effortlessly, and seamlessly take the position of being care takers and nurturers to the point of sometimes not being aware of our own needs and ending the day feeling empty and not knowing why. Having four (five including our book writer, Dominique) other strong black women to share the weight of that responsibility has been helpful, though. It’s validated in moments when I otherwise would’ve been left to feel insecure or crazy.
It is an absolute joy and honor to watch my brothers shine every single show. To watch them get the recognition they’ve deserved for years. To never have had the right roles to showcase their true star power, until now. To watch a group of black men be celebrated and uplifted. To watch them take their final bow and recognize the responsibility they carry. To be such positively wonderful role models of and for Black boys and men. To be any small part of that is humbling and thrilling.