No matter what your film tastes, there is sure to be something from Sanaa Lathan's catalog to satisfy. A fan of vampire flicks? Check out Blade. In the mood for romance? Maybe The Wood is up your alley. If sci-fi is more your speed, you can check her out in Alien vs. Predator, and animation fans can enjoy her vocal talents on Seth MacFarlane’s FOX hit The Cleveland Show. The Yale-trained actress made her Broadway debut opposite Audra McDonald, Sean Combs and Phylicia Rashad in A Raisin in the Sun and re-teamed with Rashad for London's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Lathan is now stretching her acting muscles even further as the title character in By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, as an aspiring black actress in the Golden Age of Hollywood. As the new play from Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage readies to open at off-Broadway’s Second Stage Theatre, Lathan chatted with Broadway.com about her eclectic fan base, the unique challenges facing black actresses and how Nottage lured her back to the stage.
You’ve been away from New York theater for a while. How did this play bring you back?
After I did Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in London last year, I said, “You know, I’m going to take a break from theater for a while.” That was so demanding and as wonderful as it was, I was just exhausted. And then I read Lynn [Nottage]’s play. I love love loved the script. I couldn’t believe how funny, how entertaining and how moving it was, and still so relevant today. I said I was going to take time off, but when you have an opportunity like this one, you just can’t turn it down.
And are you glad you came back?
It has been a charmed experience so far. The cast is an amazing group of people; not only are they talented, they’re really sweet, nice human beings. I was a little nervous about being off-Broadway and having to share a dressing room with three girls, but we all get along so well, they have to tell us like, “Hey guys, stop chatting, we need you on stage now!”
What do you love about the script?
I love being able to play a black woman in the 1930s who is 28, and then immediately fast-forwarding 40 years to be 68 years old in 1973. That’s the kind of role every actor dreams about. There is also something about the “black actress.” There are so many amazing black actresses out there who are so talented, and they’re just kind of, I can’t say forgotten, but they’re kind of in the shadows. The roles out there for women of color are few and far between, and it’s really wonderful to not only be playing a black actress but, in a weird way, to bring a black actress' journey to life. Even though she’s a fictional character, she is representing all of the black actresses through the ages and their struggle. The struggle is different today, obviously, than it was for someone like Vera Stark in the 1930s, but there is still a long way to go in terms of opportunity.
In your experience, are black actresses still pigeonholed in that same way?
I feel very lucky and blessed in my career that I’ve gotten to play so many wonderful characters, but it’s definitely still out there. Theresa Harris, the woman who was an inspiration for Vera Stark, played maids, but Lynn [Nottage] talks about how the black woman can be like the judge, that noble, kind of asexual character. I would love for film to be more like theater, where there is non-traditional casting. We do live in the melting pot.
Doing an all-black production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof must have been a pretty special experience.
When we first got to London, I did a lot of interviews and the British press thought it was some kind of gimmick, that these characters were black. Then once we started doing the show, the response was really interesting because it worked so well with an African-American cast. It’s set in the American south, and when we were doing it, it almost felt like the words coming out of our mouths had been written for African-Americans.
That production was the second time you worked with Phylicia Rashad, who starred with you in A Raisin in the Sun on Broadway. What’s she like to work with?
She’s wonderful. I actually grew up with Phylicia. My mother was in the original Wiz on Broadway with her, and I was right there in the wings and backstage toddling around, so she’s known me since I was a baby. We’re kind of like family, and she’s played my mother and mother-in-law. She’s very much an inspiration.
You've had many phenomenal co-stars. Who have you learned the most from?
James Earl Jones was really amazing. When we were in London, he had already done Cat on Broadway, and I don’t even know how old he is but he literally came to rehearsal every day like it was his first day doing the play. He was so enthusiastic and so encouraging. If there was ever a day that I thought, “Oh God, I can’t do it again!” I’d think of him, because his passion and his enthusiasm are amazing.
Every article I've read about you picks a different part as your “breakout role.” Do you have a role that made you say, “I’ve made it!”
I still don’t feel like I’ve made it yet! Maybe one day I will. Probably Love and Basketball, because it was a starring role in a major studio picture, and there was a real arc to the character that I hadn’t gotten before. I loved the script. To this day, that movie seems to be the one that people just really responded to.
Is that what you’re most recognized for?
People recognize me from everything! I feel young, but I’ve been doing this for over 15 years now, and people recognize me from everything to Nip/Tuck to The Cleveland Show. But Something New, Love and Basketball and Brown Sugar are definitely favorites. Then there’s a whole other group of people who love me from Alien vs. Predator. Those are the science fictions guys. And the Cleveland Show fans are great too. When I was in London, people would come up to me with headshots of Donna from the cartoon. I was like, "Oh. My. God." It takes all kinds, you know
See Sanaa Lathan in By the Way, Meet Vera Stark at Second Stage Theatre.