In the beginning, Phylicia says she didn't even want to be involved. "When this play was first produced on Broadway in 1959, because of what was happening in the world and in the country, it got kind of labeled as a civil rights play," she says. "The characters, as much as people loved them and identified with them, in subsequent productions seemed more like [stereo]types."
Finally, Phylicia's friend and director Kenny Leon convinced her to accept. "I said, 'Kenny, why do you want me to play that role?'" she says. "He goes, 'Because, Rashad, I think you're going to do something.'"
When Phylicia read the script, she says she knew it was for her. "This whole story is this woman's commitment to life—to the continuation of life through her children and through her grandson," she says.
Phylicia says in creating her character she gave great consideration to what being born at the turn of the century would have meant to a woman like Lena. "I understood her history as a human being," she says. "She was a woman who could reach back and touch slavery through grandparents or old people in her community that she knew as a child."