LaTanya Richardson Jackson and Kenny Leon Discover the "Dream" in Broadway's A Raisin in the Sun

LaTanya Richardson Jackson (unexpectedly) makes her way back to Broadway — by a twist of fate and the encouragement of director Kenny Leon — in the 2014 Main Stem revival of the Lorraine Hansberry classic A Raisin in the Sun.

LaTanya Richardson Jackson
LaTanya Richardson Jackson (Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN)

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"Could I faint?" asked actress LaTanya Richardson Jackson when meeting members of the press — shortly before the Broadway bow of A Raisin in the Sun, which opened April 3 at the Barrymore Theatre. The actress, overwhelmed by her unforeseen Broadway return, had just stepped into rehearsals for Raisin; Tony winner Diahann Carroll withdrew from the production due to scheduling demands.

"First of all," she continued, "Ms. Carroll is a friend, and I spoke to her before she even came here to work on it, so I [have] mixed emotions about it. But, my God, what a great gift to even have an emotion about. I am grateful. It is beyond the imagination that I could have, without really trying, been gifted such a part. This is a role that most African-American women look at and, whether or not you covet it or want to do it or not, you have to consider it. So, I am overjoyed to be with Denzel [Washington] and this magnificent company — Sophie [Okonedo], Anika [Noni Rose], Sean [Patrick Thomas], Stephen [McKinley] Henderson — this is like a dream cast, and to be here with them is more than I could imagine."

Although Jackson couldn't imagine herself inhabiting the run-down Chicago apartment in 1959 Illinois, Tony-nominated director Kenny Leon — who made his directorial Broadway debut with the last Broadway incarnation of Raisin — believed she'd be the perfect match for Mama.

"A lot of folks don't know this," Leon confided, "but I called LaTanya ten years ago to do this role. There was another director on [the 2004 revival of] A Raisin in the Sun, initially, and they went to Phylicia Rashad to do the role, and Phylicia said, 'Oh, I'm too young to do it. I decline.' So when they brought me on to do it, they said, 'Well, Phylicia Rashad has already declined,' so I went to LaTanya, [but] LaTanya was busy. I called Phylicia personally. I said, 'You can do this play,' and then she said yeah. Phylicia ended up doing it [and] winning a Tony Award. It worked out pretty good for her. "So when I called LaTanya last Sunday, after she couldn't catch her breath, she said, 'Thank God for second chances.' And, she had to remind me, 'We almost worked together on this ten years ago.' … She stepped in on Monday, we had a great week of rehearsal, [and] she's just killing it."

Jackson with Bryce Clyde Jenkins in A Raisin in the Sun.
photo by Brigitte Lacombe

"I'm not thinking now. I'm just talking," said Jackson following her first week of rehearsals. "I'm trying to hold myself up. I didn't have time to think. I just said yes unequivocally, so at this point, I'm trying to learn the lines, learn the blocking and just keep it moving." Jackson takes on the iconic role of Lena Younger, originated on Broadway and film by Claudia McNeil (who received Tony Award and Golden Globe nods for her performance) and revived on Broadway by the Tony-winning Rashad. When Lena receives an insurance check for $10,000, the "American Dream" begins to materialize for the Younger family, if only they can prioritize the impending possibilities.

"I used to go see the plays at Spelman College [in Atlanta, GA], and that play was there, and I saw it there and fell in love with it," said Jackson. "You see the film with Sidney Poitier, Claudia McNiel, the great Diana Sands, whom I've worked with actually in [a production of] Macbeth, and it's just something that you're moved by — you never forget what that emotion is from having seen it, even if you forget what they were talking about. [There's] an emotional situation and spirit that's alive in that play… Phylicia Rashad and Ms. Carroll, Claudia McNeil — I can feel their spirit just in the short time that I've been here, so I hope and I pray that this gift from God will be established in my name now."

Jackson, 64, was also excited to reunite with co-star and friend Denzel Washington, 59, who plays her son, Walter Lee, in Raisin — even though, from the onset, the media made clear that the two were only five years apart in age.

"Hopefully, we do our job," Jackson said of their age difference. "This is the theatre, you know, and the one thing in the theatre you're asked is to believe… We're asking you to believe us in a different incarnation, so if we're doing our part, which I know we're all going to do — because this is a hell of a cast, each person is great — than you won't really see the age difference because we're going to do the play. You'll see what the play is saying, and it's great to be with him because I love him to death — Kenny, too — so we're just going to do what we do."

Director Leon is doing his part by discovering, yet again, what makes Raisin timeless and true. "I've directed Raisin in the Sun five times. You keep discovering things. You keep on seeing things in the script that you never saw before. That's what great pieces of art do," he explained. "I always start with the actors. I say, 'This is the set. This is the world we live in. This is the general parameter of the show. Now, okay, let's stand on our feet and feel around.' … The actors actually tell you where truth lies, and my job as a director is to capture that truth."

(Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)