LaTanya Richardson Jackson was just about to address the crowd at an afternoon tea in her honor when her friend, Julianne Moore, interrupted. “No, no, don’t start,” Moore said. “I’m not done yet, wait.” Moore had just toasted Jackson, celebrating her Tony Award nomination forA Raisin in the Sun. “I had to lead with my toast before I finish with this other thing, because I can’t top this!” Moore told the crowd of well-wishers at the intimate gathering on Tuesday afternoon. “[There’s] no way I can top this. It’s a letter from a very special guest who couldn’t be here today, but she sent this from the White House,” she explained, excitedly waving a letter from Michelle Obama. “This is the original copy, I’ll try not to stain it,” she said, before reading it aloud.
The surprise letter was one of many surprises for Jackson this season, which began when she stepped into the role of Lena Younger (“Mama”) at the last minute, after Diahann Carroll bowed out of the production, which stars Denzel Washington. The Tony nomination was another. “I’m still living inside a shock bubble,” Jackson said of all the acclaim she has received for herRaisin performance. “This is all just something that is so in the zeitgeist of miracles for me, that I don’t even know. I can’t even think.”
She had set her DVR to record the Tony-nomination announcements, but couldn’t bring herself to watch it. And then her publicists called, telling her she’d been nominated. “And then I asked them, ‘Are you sure?’” Jackson told VF Daily at the tea. “You know, later, in hindsight, I’m like, why did I ask them, ‘Are you sure?’ That’s how loony all of this has been to me: Are you sure?” she said, laughing. “Then I watched it, and I was in such shock after I watched it that I erased it. I just went ‘delete.’ And then I went—oh, why did I delete it?”
Among those at the party, at a place called Lady Mendl’s Tea Salon in a charming brownstone on Irving Place, were Patti LuPone, Deborah Roberts, Judith Jamison, Judge Judy Sheindlin, Ellen Barkin, Tonya Lewis Lee, Judith Light, and Jackson’s Raison co-stars and fellow Tony nominees Anika Noni Rose and Sophie Okonedo. There were a couple of men there, Moore’s husband, Bart Freundlich, and Jackson’s husband, Samuel L. Jackson.
Samuel was in London shooting Avengers: Age of Ultron, when his wife received her Tony nomination. “I woke up that morning, I had a text,” Samuel told VF Daily. “I called to say congratulations, and she was like, ‘Oh, I’ve got to go to work. I don’t have time to talk about it.’ So that was as much as she said to me.”
He said that while he never expected that doing the play would result in so much acclaim for his wife, the role seemed to fit. “I knew that this was a role that she had a great amount of acuity for, that she was in the right place in her life, that this would be a great thing for her to do,” he told VF Daily. He added that it came along at a crucial point in LaTanya’s career. “It happened at a point where she was actually trying to make a decision about continuing to go on in this business, or just starting to pursue the next part of it. And I think it re-ignited the creative spirit inside her in just the right way, at just the right time, especially with this particular cast.”
LaTanya says she has no problem playing Denzel Washington’s mother, even though the two are actually very close in age. “He knows I tell him what to do anyway,” she told us, laughing. “You know, it’s an attitude, it’s a posture, it’s a place of being. I can be that with him, because, you know, he needs guidance. I’m there for him.”