THEATERMANIA: Why have you been away from the stage for so long?
LATANYA RICHARDSON JACKSON: The trajectory of my husband's career was so in the stratosphere that I found it was easier and better for our family that I didn't do theater work that would take me away from the home. Now that my daughter is well on her way in life -- she's 26 years old and a graduate of Vassar -- and my husband is well ensconced in a great career, I decided to find out "what about me?" This play has saved my life because theater has always been my first love.
TM: How did you know that this would be the right project to come back with?
LRJ: I probably would have come back with any project that didn't require me to get nekkid! I had done the reading of the play at the Kennedy Center a year ago with the director Kenny Leon and I thought "I have to do this play one day." That's why I say it was manna from heaven that it fell into my lap. I was in Washington D.C. at President Obama's inauguration when I got a call to audition for Bartlett Sher.
TM: Were you intimidated to audition for him?
LRJ: He made me feel very welcome -- and I'm not one to be intimidated. He's a sweetie pie. But better still, he's brilliant. I so appreciate the creative mind of someone who could get inside this play and mine it so that it was something current, something modern. I trusted him, and I'm not one to trust most people. Bart was very smart; he had a lot of resource materials there for us to use. Trust me, this is a resourceful group of people, but when we arrived he had it all laid out like a little library of things we could check out. Bertha is in the kitchen all the time, so there were books of pots and pans that they let me order. I put the kitchen together with vintage pots and ladles and cups.
TM: What research materials were helpful in preparing for the role?
LRJ: This is a complex play, especially when it comes to understanding the Joe Turner laws -- all of that information about being on a peon farm, and how that kind of indentured servitude was handled, and why it was slavery just by another name -- isn't readily accessible. We looked at pictures from the time of how people posed, because there's something in how people pose that tells you how they move. I'm a great one with the old spirit anyway and I remembered a lot of my grandmother's movements and how she held her hands a lot of the time when she was standing and talking to people. We knew the posture had to be different than it would be today. There were certain things that some of us were doing in the beginning that we would call each other on and say, "You can't do that, that's too modern, that's too contemporary."
TM: What challenge does August Wilson's dialogue present for an actor?
LRJ: The language itself is so poetic. There's a seduction in the language that might draw you to present it poetically, to just stand and present the monologue. I know there are different schools of thought about August, because some people think you need to keep It in its rhythm. The great thing that Bart helped us do was to work against that -- to unrhythm it and make it pure dialogue.
LRJ: There were not only eyebrows raised; there was a cross erected. I used to make a joke with Bart: "I'm still trying to decide whether I'm gonna be standing with you when they bring the nails." I think the problem is that because it's not a level playing field for African-American directors, so when you get a piece like August's -- he's our iconic, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright -- and to not be able to be have an African-American steward over the play is what upset everybody. But I don't think people understood that Lincoln Center didn't choose Joe Turner; Bart chose it. And while August had been very vocal during his lifetime about having only African-Americans direct his plays, Bart went to his widow, and she said that as with anything, he had changed his mind and realized that the best person should do it. Whether Bart was the best person or not, he had an access to do it, chose the play, and thank God for it.
TM: Did you read the reviews -- which were uniformly great?
LRJ: Of course, I read the reviews. Are you kidding me? I worked with [former Public Theater founder] Joe Papp and we'd read 'em even if it said it was the worst thing they'd ever seen! I'm not scared of reviews!
TM: How is your husband reacting to all this?
LRJ: My husband is happy, although he's not so happy I'm gone so long -- because he doesn't eat as well. But I've had him here, back and forth, and we talk daily and he gets it. I am just so happy about this production. It's just been the best thing!