LaTanya Richardson Jackson Looks Back on Her Long Career

LaTanya Richardson Jackson’s career is about hard work and continuity. Last year, she appeared in “The Taming of the Shrew” at the Public Theatre, a relationship that began in the 1970s. And this month marks the 40th anniversary of her first mention in Variety, when she was cast in “Perdido (Lost),” a play by Soledad at the Henry Street Settlement. She has directed and acted in numerous productions at the Lower East Side site for social services and arts.

Richardson started acting as a teen in Atlanta, where she also met her future husband, Samuel L. Jackson. They’ve been together 47 years. Richardson was Tony-nominated for the 2014 revival of “A Raisin in the Sun” with Denzel Washington. This month, she concludes her guest arc on “Grey’s Anatomy,” as the mother of Maggie (Kelly McCreary).

Next up for Richardson Jackson: More work with the philanthropic Samuel L. & LaTanya R. Jackson Foundation, more acting, and more directing.

“Perdido” was one of the early plays at the Henry Street Settlement. What was that like?

Woodie King Jr., in 1970, had started a company called the New Federal Theatre, which was ensconced at the Henry Street Settlement. I did a number of plays there, and I auditioned each time. The plays were mostly new. New York was very fertile ground; there was a plethora of African-American plays being done.

When did you start acting?

I was maybe 15, in high school. I had a great mentor/teacher, Georgia Allen, who took a few of us to Spelman College, to be a part of children’s theater. I did theater at Spelman until I graduated from there, and I got to work with such luminous actresses as Diana Sands in “Macbeth.”

Atlanta was a welcoming presence for a lot of artists.; They called it “the Mecca of the South.” I got to see the Negro Ensemble Company, Cicely Tyson, Geraldine Page, Ruby Dee, all onstage. With cinema, all of us watched Bette Davis. It’s horrible to say, but she’s why I started smoking!

And then Diahann Carroll on TV [who starred in the 1968 series “Julia”] made everything seem possible. I never thought it impossible to be an actor. I was a Southern colored girl, and part of the Black Power movement. I was always emboldened by the idea that I was going to succeed. Around that time, I met Sam and we moved to New York. It never dawned on me that there were obstacles in my path.

What spurred the New York move?

While in Atlanta, I’d been in “The Best Man,” with E.G. Marshall. Joseph Papp saw it and said to me, “You definitely need to be in New York. Come and see me.” When I got to New York, I went straight to his office at the Public Theater and said, “Mr. Papp sent for me.” They said “What?!” and just laughed. In my country mind, that’s what he had done! But it worked out: He put me in a play right away, Aishah Rahman’s “Unfinished Women Cry in No Man’s Land While a Bird Dies in a Gilded Cage.” Joseph Papp ended up as a great mentor to me.

What’s the best career advice you’ve gotten?

Georgia Allen said to always to tell the truth and never do anything the same way. Find ways to vary it. Always listen for melodies in the way people talk. The tone may be same, but inflections will always be different. So listen to different melodies. And Diana Sands said before you go onstage, count backwards from 100 to get yourself centered — so everything else will fall away and you will be totally focused on where you are, in the moment. Still, to this day, I stand in the wings before my entrance and count from 100.

How would you describe your acting?

I have not tried for a career that’s showy. I have always tried to layer things in, and not push it. I love an underperformance, where you’re so entrenched in who that person is that you’re living in it.

Do you give advice to students?

I tell them if you choose this business, you need the heart to see it through. If you’re tenacious and prepare yourself by studying, it pays off — the dividend is so great. I’m not saying you’ll make a lot of money. You can’t go into it for that. But I did go in saying, “I’m going to support myself. This will be my job.” I never thought, “I’m going to be rich.” I wasn’t looking for that. I tell young people that if your heart is there and you have some talent, nurture the talent and stay committed.

What’s next for you?

George Wolfe is another mentor. He told me a long time ago, “You should be directing.” Time is passing. I need to get my hands on a camera. Woe unto me if I say, “I wish I coulda.” Now is the time for me to do something about that.

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