Phylicia Ayers-Allen: getting beyond the race question. 'Cosby Show' star sees acting as 'touching people's hearts'
New York — ''Our show is not about black people, it is about human beings,'' says Phylicia Ayers-Allen, co-star of the only runaway success among the new television series of the season.
The Bill Cosby Show (NBC, Thursdays, 8-8:30 p.m.) manages to remain among the top 10 shows week after week. It traces the life of a warm and loving family headed by an obstetrician (Bill Cosby), his legal-aid-lawyer wife (Phylicia Ayers-Allen), and four (now five) children. They live a typical upper-middle-class, New York brownstone existence, chock-full of the normal problems that arise within any prosperous family unit. In this case, the family is black.
Miss Ayers-Allen, the older sister of ''Fame'' star Debbie Allen, is chatting with me in a tiny office at NBC's Rockefeller Center headquarters. She has taken on many of the promotional chores for the show, since star Bill Cosby is very reluctant to submit to interviews ever since a TV Guide article appeared before the show premiered which pictured him as arrogant. Does Miss Ayers-Allen, startlingly attractive in a sparkling white leather jacket and white leather boots, agree with that assessment?
She shakes her head vigorously. ''No! He's adorable. He really goes out of his way to make people comfortable. But he's a very subtle man and he sees past the veil that many people wear. He may play around and joke, but when he needs to be serious he is serious. Mr. Cosby is one of the most intelligent people I have ever known.''
So how does she account for the fact that so many reporters have written that he is arrogant?
She shrugs. ''Every human being has individual problems. And some people have a problem dealing with a man who is so confident and knowledgeable. He doesn't mince or waste words. When you ask him a question, you really should know what you are asking. He won't be pinned down by foolishness.
''I've been at press conferences with him and I noticed that people kept trying to narrow what he had to offer to an ethnic group. Well, he's bigger than that. He's a human being - a big, accomplished, loving human being. And he gives freely to all people. He doesn't concoct humor that only one group of people can identify with. He deals with human circumstances. I don't blame him for getting annoyed when people try to make his humor less universal.
''I don't care what some reporters have said, I've seen a lot of just ordinary people come by and I tell you people love him. They adore him.'' How does Miss Ayers-Allen react to the observation that the show is basically a white family sitcom painted black?
''I consider the source. If the observation comes from white critics, maybe they have a problem in that they think of themselves as the only human beings on the planet. And when they see people who are not white in human circumstances, they feel we are not what we are supposed to be.''
But several years ago, when Dianne Carroll starred in the ''Julia'' series, there were objections from black activists who felt that the comedy was not ''ethnic'' enough. How does she react to that?
''All I know is that my father was a dentist and there's a history of educators in my family that goes back to my great-grandparents. My mother was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, my sister won a Golden Globe and Emmy Award, my brother conducted the Houston Symphony when he was 11, my youngest brother is now a student at the University of Texas, and I graduated summa cum laude from Howard University. I consider us not that extraordinary a family. There are too many misconceptions of humanity.
''It will be a great feat for America when we can look at all other human beings and welcome them with love and respect merely because they are human beings, whatever their color.''
Aside from the entertainment value of the show (and it has quiet, incisive points to make about family life), what does she feel the series can accomplish?
''Well, I think people will learn a lot about themselves. If you see a family of human beings loving each other, and you have a problem accepting that, maybe you will realize you have a problem and had better examine your own self.''
Does Miss Ayers-Allen believe that the show will teach white people who see only black stereotypes that there are other kinds of blacks?
''I don't think of it like that. I don't think of my work as being educational. I think of my work as grace, as a special gift from God, as a duty and a responsibility. I think of my work as a measure for touching people's hearts. It's not my job to teach people a thing. My job is to be this person on TV, to create a character from my own understanding, because this is what an actor must do ultimately. I'm not out to teach anybody anything. I think if people learn anything, they'll learn it by themselves. I'm still learning about myself.''
A University of Wisconsin sociologist recently said that what disturbed her most was that for many Americans, the only contact they had with blacks was on TV. And TV did not present the whole spectrum of black life.
To this, Mrs. Ayers-Allen responds: ''Someone once asked me once whether I thought there was a realistic portrayal of blacks on soap operas. My answer was that I don't think there's a realistic portrayal of people on soap operas.
''When I see Archie Bunker on TV, I don't think he is typical. Am I supposed to assume that all white people in America think that way? Is that an intelligent assumption? People have to be responsible for their own individual views.''
Miss Ayers-Allen says Bill Cosby has the most unusual and spontaneous sense of humor she has ever seen. ''An example: We're on the set one day, going through the rehearsal with the cameras. There's a plant over in the corner, a big, tall plant. He walks over to the plant and grabs it, making believe it is eating him. The cameramen were stretched out on the floor laughing and we were immobilized for 15 minutes. He always comes up with spontaneous stuff like that.''
Miss Ayers-Allen is divorced and she lives in New York, where the show is taped, with her 11-year-old son. What ambitions does she have for him?
She looks at me, wondering at the fact that I obviously still haven't quite understood.
''All I want is for my son to realize himself. That's the most anyone can hope for in a human being. Isn't that what I've been saying all through this interview?'' Independent films get a showing
The voice of the independent filmmaker has found a new electronic soapbox all its own.
From the American Film Institute (PBS, Mondays, 10:30-11 p.m., starting Nov. 26 and for seven Mondays thereafter, check local listings) will give independent video and filmmakers an opportunity to showcase their work for national audiences.
First in the series is ''Violet,'' winner of the 1981 Academy Award for short features. This show, based on ''The Ugliest Pilgrim,'' a short story by Doris Betts and directed by Shelley Levinson, is a slight but poignant tale about a scarred young woman who is determined to win a miraculous healing of her ugly scar from a television evangelist. Her only goal is to become beautiful - to have ''blond curls and Irish eyes and a mouth so large it would never be done with kissing.''
In the course of her pilgrimage toward what she considers perfection, Violet learns only one thing from the electronic healer: that beauty is vain. Through her own self-healing, she learns that she must have faith in herself, that love can make her beautiful in the eyes of her loved one.
It is a simple story, told with delicate restraint.
Some of the other films in the series are ''Strange Fruit,'' based on Lillian Smith's novel about Southern miscegenation, produced and directed by Seth Pinsker; ''Moonface,'' based on a story by Jack London, produced and directed by Richard L. Rosenthal; and ''The New Wife,'' a film about Hong Kong immigrants, directed by Renee Cho. The films, produced at the American Film Institute's Center for Advanced Film Studies in Los Angeles by Kaye Cooper and presented by WETA, Washington, are based on both original and published material. According to the AFI, what they have in common is that ''they are all the work of the nation's most promising filmmakers.'' Assuming, of course, that the American Film Insitute is where the nation's most promising filmmakers are to be found. Now, how about finding a place for independent videotapes and films made by artists not necessarily affiliated with the AFI?