By winning the Tony for best actress in a play, Phylicia Rashad completed a journey started by Claudia McNeil more than four decades ago in the first production of “A Raisin in the Sun.”
On Sunday, Rashad became the first black actress to win a Tony for a dramatic leading role.
She took home Broadway’s highest honor for her portrayal of Lena Younger, the tough-minded matriarch of Lorraine Hansberry’s landmark drama.
“Often I’ve wondered what does it take for this to happen. And now I know. It takes effort and grace, tremendous self-effort and amazing grace,” said Rashad.
“And in my life that grace has taken numerous forms. The first was the family into which I was born, parents who loved and wanted me, and a mother who fought fearlessly, courageously, consistently so that her children above all else could realize their full potential as human beings.”
Rashad appears in a revival of the play that also stars hip-hop mogul Sean Combs in his Broadway debut, and Sanaa Lathan and Audra McDonald — who won her fourth Tony in 10 years Sunday for her featured performance as the hardworking wife of Combs’ character.
In 1960, McNeil, who originated the role of Lena, was the first black woman nominated for a Tony in a dramatic leading role. She lost to Anne Bancroft in “The Miracle Worker.” Three years later, McNeil received her second nomination, this time for “Tiger Tiger Burning Bright,” but Uta Hagen took the prize for “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
Over the years, such actresses as Bea Richards, Diana Sands, Anna Deavere Smith, Mary Alice and Leslie Uggams were nominated in the leading actress-in-a-play category.
None won, although Uggams did triumph in 1968 for her role in the musical “Hallelujah, Baby!” (a tie with Patricia Routledge for “Darling of the Day”) and Mary Alice won the featured-actress play prize in 1987 for “Fences.”
Numerous black actresses have won in the lead and featured musical categories, including Virginia Capers, who portrayed Lena in “Raisin,” a musical version of “A Raisin in the Sun.”
Three black actors have received the top acting prize. James Earl Jones has taken the Tony twice — in 1969 for “The Great White Hope” and again in 1987 for August Wilson’s “Fences.”
South African actors John Kani and Winston Ntshona jointly won in 1975 for their work in “Sizwe Banzi is Dead” and “The Island.”
A composed Rashad concluded her acceptance speech by saying: “I thank God for everything, every single thing ... and for this.”