BWW Interview: LaTanya Richardson Jackson of TAMING OF THE SHREW
It's already summer at the Delacorte in Central Park, where the Public Theater's Shakespeare in the Park--one of NYC's most beloved summer traditions--has launched its season with an all-female production of The Taming of the Shrew.
Directed by Phyllida Lloyd (Mamma Mia), Shrew began performances May 24 and will open on Monday, June 13. Lloyd previously staged all-women Shakespeare--Henry IV and Julius Caesar--at the Donmar Warehouse in her native Britain and subsequently at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn.
Taming of the Shrew does not change the gender of characters but simply has actresses portraying men, a reversal of the Elizabethan model where men played both male and female roles. Costarring as Baptista, father of Katherina (Cush Jumbo) and Bianca (Gayle Rankin), is LaTanya Richardson Jackson, last seen on the New York stage as Lena Younger in 2014's Denzel Washington-starring A Raisin in the Sun, for which she received a Tony nomination. The previous year she'd costarred in Regina Taylor's stop.reset. at the Signature Theatre off-Broadway.
Richardson Jackson was nominated for an NAACP Image Award for her role in last year's HBO miniseries Show Me a Hero and has had a recurring role on CBS' Blue Bloods. Her film credits include The Fighting Temptations, U.S. Marshals, Mother and Child, Sleepless in Seattle, Fried Green Tomatoes, Freedomland, Losing Isaiah, and Juice--the latter three also featuring her husband of 36 years, Samuel L. Jackson. She spoke with BroadwayWorld during the second week of previews. Taming of the Shrew is scheduled to run at the Delacorte through June 26.
How is this play reconceived (or re-perceived) when it's performed by women only?
It allows us to look at it with fresh eyes. It's not just a feminine perspective; it's understanding it from a woman being able to put on a man's persona and explain this play--because it's a very difficult play, especially for modern times. Phyllida felt that to take on the mantle of "the man" and actually do it as a man, but from a female mindset--because we do have to filter this through us--that it's going to read differently. We're not trying to speak [with] a man's voice, but we've taken on the postures. We're looking at it more as a study, actually--an entertaining study--of what this play really means. Shakespeare wrote about what was happening during the time; it still relates to us now...our roles as women and men, we're in the process of changing them.
And how does the absence of men alter the work experience?
The working environment was different in that, I think, we shared easier. The idea of the competitive nature between women--you know, everyone wants to make it bitchy when it's not. It made it very comfortable. We were just able to be with each other in a different kind of way, without a man changing the dynamic. We end up finding the things that we do as women that men [don't because they] just feel entitled. Like, we apologize a lot--"Oh, I'm sorry," "Excuse me..." Okay, stop apologizing, just take the space. In developing and evolving as women, we found ourselves put in positions that we didn't necessarily have to be in. When we sit on the subway, how men spread their legs and take up the space, and women get small, "What's the least amount of space I can avail myself to?" So exploring the nuances of who we are as women was great--quite enlightening.
This has also been a cross-cultural experience, hasn't it?
Everybody on the production side is from London. For us Americans it is really an experience, because their process is different from ours. Just what is allowed is so vast, you begin to understand why their sense of acting entitlement is so great. I think most Americans, when we're building a character, we look at the specificity of what that person is, in particular. They work from what's possible...they look at what could they be in the world--how big is it, then how small is it. They're able to define and illustrate it in an explorative energy rather than one that we sit and define so specifically. What are the stages of it, what are the levels of it. There's a movement coach, Ann Yee, who took us through different stages every morning. There's this one exercise we did that took us from 1 to 7 in intensity. Even taking the time for that kind of exploration is different because here we always feel under the gun about how much time do we have to get this right. With them, in the beginning stages it's not so much about getting it right but what will it bear. We end up, probably, somewhat in the same place, but I think that they are allowed a vaster choosing than [we are in] our work in America.
How do you see your character?
Baptista is a father of the times who's trying to marry off his daughter. I told Cush, "Here's my history: Your mother is dead, but I promised I would take good care of you, since she knew that you were the 'problem child'--or as she would put it, 'my special child.'" Rambunctious and trying to move forward in a world that is not allowing her to do so. I'm mindful of that, and I'm trying to just be the father who knows that the line has to pass with the first one getting married...to be a good servant in that regard, but I love my daughter so I'm not this didactic, hard-edged father. I'm trying to show that side of a man of the times but who is not an ogre. Yes, the other one [Bianca] is sweet, but I'm trying not, as Kate would say, to marry her off to this "mad-brain rudesby" and keep this other one like she's some angel. I'm trying to not be that person. But it's a character who is involved with what appears to be--for me, especially to my modern brain--selling off your kid to the highest bidder. I'm trying to put some shape to that so that it doesn't look so mercenary.
Had you done much Shakespeare before?
I worked for the New York Shakespeare Festival when Joseph Papp was there [in For Colored Girls, Unfinished Women, Spell #7 and Casanova]. I had done Shakespeare in college, but I really hadn't done it here so much, except Joe knew that I did it, so there were readings at the Public.
I actually worked with our vocal coach when the [Royal Shakespeare] Company came to America. They chose actors from America to work with ones from the national company...a workshop for, like, a week at the Public Theater. My husband, Sam, was in it; Claire Danes, she was 17 or 18 at the time; Blythe Danner; a couple of other people. But the park I had never done.
So have you had to get used to acting amid "the elements"?
Yes! The park is full of critters, I've got stuff flying in my mouth...it's driving me crazy. There's this Winnebago on the stage, and one night I was standing backstage and I look down and there was one of those raccoons [on stage under the vehicle]. One of the PA's said, "Just move over here. We'll get it." Don't scream, just move.
Earlier this year you were honored at the Children's Defense Fund's annual gala for your longstanding advocacy. How did you get involved in that organization?
Marian Wright Edelman, who's the founder of the Children's Defense Fund, was a mentor of mine. She is a graduate of Spelman College, and so am I. She used to come back to the school to speak, which is how I met her. This is what she does for the world. She's said, "There are no free lunches"--which we know--and service is the debt that we pay for living.
Your philanthropic work is quite extensive, isn't it?
It's a great thing to do. In March we did a big benefit on Broadway for the Arthur Miller Foundation. There were kids [at the show] last night; their drama instructor came over to me...these were the kids that the scholarships were for.
I have always been involved in some philanthropic work--growing up in the church, you always had to have a reasonable portion of service to the community and to people who have less, who need a helping hand. It's just something in my heart that I know needs to be done. The Samuel L. and LaTanya R. Jackson Foundation is involved in education and service for underdeveloped communities. I work with Artists for a New South Africa as well, serving communities in Africa. There's also the Magic Johnson Foundation, because Earvin "Magic" Johnson and his wife, Cookie, have a long arm of outreach to communities in California and in Michigan, where they're from, and in other areas that have been sidelined economically.
So it must be very gratifying to work for the Public Theater, which is dedicated to bringing theater to underserved audiences.
I think that what the Public Theater is doing is important to perpetuate a lifestyle in the theater. I'm also on the board of the American Theatre Wing, so it is our job to make sure that people stay invested and not forget that live theater is still a thriving way for us to communicate. I think that we're reducing who we are as human beings to these cell phones and these devices; now we don't even want to pick up a telephone to talk--we just text. It's like, "Can you open your mouth? Can you still appreciate words and sounds and the inflections from another person?" Theater amplifies the interaction of people rather than electronics, and I hope it never goes away. And the Public Theater is fostering programs to keep the theater that we know--and the theater that we don't know about--alive.
This production also extends the Public's commitment to so-called nontraditional casting.
Phyllida has filled this multiculturally, and it works. I think it's important that people see Shakespeare, first of all, and understand that this was not theater written for elitists--it was for everyone to see, all the people to come out on the green and be entertained and enjoy. I appreciate that Oskar Eustis has taken up Joe's charge, because I knew Joe Papp and I know he wanted Shakespeare done by Americans for Americans. So we have to perpetuate this idea and bring the masses in, and not just in the park. The kids were there, and they now see the possibilities of it. It's not just formalized in the way that a lot of people have been used to seeing. It's an opening, and it's such a gracious and wonderful thing to do, especially in these times--to align yourself with something to do that is all-encompassing, that doesn't just take care of your little part of the world. I applaud the Public Theater for staying in that service, and Phyllida for having such an expansive view of living.
Photos of LaTanya Richardson Jackson, from top: as Baptista with Janet McTeer as Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew; in her headshot; with Cush Jumbo in The Taming of the Shrew; with Marsha Stephanie Blake in the Lincoln Center Theater 2009 revival of Joe Turner's Come and Gone; with Bryce Clyde Jenkins in Broadway's A Raisin in the Sun. [Taming of the Shrew photos by Joan Marcus; Joe Turner: T. Charles Erickson; Raisin the Sun: Brigitte Lacombe]