Sanaa Lathan in 'Cat on A Hot Tin Roof'
Sometimes, you think, are you sure Tennessee didn't write this for black people?"
It's rare for black productions to play the West End, especially non-musicals. So all the more reason to welcome Debbie Allen's all-black revival of Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, a Broadway sellout in spring 2008, that has arrived at the Novello Theatre largely recast. The holdovers are James Earl Jones and Phylicia Rashad, both in peak form as Big Daddy and Big Mama, joined for the 20-week West End run by a mostly English company headed by Adrian Lester as Brick. Maggie "the cat," in turn, marks the London theater debut of Sanaa Lathan, a Broadway alumna of the Rashad/Sean Combs Raisin in the Sun. A graduate of the Yale Drama School, Lathan both looks great in a slip and lands the heartache of the extended monologue that is this play's daunting first act. Broadway.com spoke to the star of TV, film, and stage the day before opening night, any nerves far from evident during a relaxed and engaging chat.
I hope I'm pronouncing your first name correctly!
You are. It's "Sinatra" without the "tra."
Well, a warm welcome to London, especially in a classic American play that the British seem especially to love: this is the third major revival of Cat here in 20 years.
I am so glad to be doing this and to be here; this is such an amazing experience to be doing what is the role of a lifetime for any actress. I definitely feel like this is a moment in my life!
And what a "moment" that first act provides for Maggie, who talks more or less nonstop for the better part of an hour.
Who you telling [laughs]? I've been in bed all day on my day off every Sunday. Our schedule is Monday to Saturday, and every Sunday I say, I intend to do this and this and this and then I find that I literally cannot get out of bed. I think, I'm not going anywhere—I'm going to be horizontal all day long.
But you must have known beforehand what the role requires.
Definitely! I knew that going in and feel like I have had the perfect amount of preparation. I knew I had the role several months before I came to London so it wasn't like I just had four weeks of rehearsal, or whatever. And Debbie has been really wonderful: she had already gone through the whole journey of this play already [in New York] and from what I've heard from her, she really wanted this to be a completely new and different production, except, of course, for Phylicia and James.
Tell me about working with James Earl Jones.
Lord, he's amazing, very powerful. And it's interesting, James is the oldest person in the cast, but he's the youngest person in rehearsal. I'm so inspired by him and his enthusiasm and his joy. He's a great lesson in always keeping your passion and keeping things fresh.
When Kathleen Turner played Maggie on Broadway, there was a huge fuss made about her slip.
I like my slip! I don't know what it looks like from the audience but we've moved the production forward to the 1980s so it's not like I'm wearing some kind of 1950s missile bra; it's not that kind of silhouette. It's more a classic slip that hits right below the knee.
Is it odd to feel that physically exposed?
Well, I'm a curvy girl, so I'm definitely filling it out, which of course goes with the role. I'm tall, so I've had to wear low heels. Adrian [Lester] is really tall—he's six foot one—so I thought at the beginning of rehearsals that I could wear proper heels, no problem. Now, I am thanking the lord for low heels because I spend all night running around.
What's your view of how much Maggie knows—or chooses to know—about her husband Brick's relationship with his beloved Skipper?
I don't know that she knows what the deal is; I just know that she knows that he and Skipper had this untouchable connection and that now she is fighting for her marriage. There was a time in her life when it was good between her and Brick and no matter what happens, she's going to get that back. Tennessee is purposefully ambiguous: he doesn't want any pat answers. He wants the audience to have a discussion and debate and to not know exactly what the truth was—or is.
This is a big event for London, just as A Raisin in the Sun must have been for you on Broadway, acting nightly with P. Diddy and an audience, many of whom may have been new to the whole idea of theater.
It was. I remember thinking before I got into that that I wasn't quite sure why they were doing A Raisin in the Sun and why can't we do a new African-American play? But then I really understood how it is a classic in the true sense: how it speaks not only to African-Americans but to all races and generations.
What do you remember of Tony night? [Lathan was a nominee for Best Featured Actress in a Play.]
I just remember being so nervous: me and Audra [McDonald] were nominated in the same category and she won, so there was that combination of feeling happy and relieved that I didn't have to go up and do a speech and at the same time wondering beforehand whether I would fit into my dress, which I remember was so beautifully designed by Tracy Reese. I was on a strict, crazy diet, so it was a triumph for me get into the dress at all.
Since that time, you've worked exclusively on film and TV prior to Cat; how important is the theater in your career?
It's been really great being in Hollywood and working on film sets, but it's such a different muscle you're flexing when you're on stage doing something like this. I feel like I'm getting into acting shape again, sort of like when I played Juliet at Yale or Irina in Three Sisters. The thing is you get so caught up in the world of Hollywood, especially when you have a mortgage to pay, and theater is such a big commitment with eight shows a week and all that.
Did it take a lot of organization to enable you to come to London?
I moved my whole life here; it was the same when I did Raisin: the theater is a big commitment. For me, it's about the job having to be worth it. Luckily, I have a friend in L.A. who needed a place to stay, and my two doggies, Pops and Sophie, are with my mom [former Broadway performer Eleanor McCoy]. I considered bringing them with me but I didn't want to have any split focus. And anyway, I can talk to them on Skype; they like to bark at the screen [laughs].
Do you get recognized here from Alien vs. Predator, The Best Man or whatever?
I'm living right near Buckingham Palace, and I find so far that I don't get recognized as much here as I do in the States, which is actually kind of nice. I'm a very independent person, so I'm loving that feeling of being able to do things by myself.
And you’re acting as an ambassador of sorts for a great American dramatist that has never been seen in Britain performed in this way, by an all-black company.
This production shows that people want to see all sorts of theater. America, and the world, consists of an array of nationalities and colors and our theater should reflect that. There's never a moment with this where you have to come out of it and go, "Right, they are doing a white text." Sometimes, you think, are you sure Tennessee didn't write this for black people?