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Richardson, LaTanya

LaTanya Richardson

1949—

Actor, director

LaTanya Richardson has had a long and distinguished career as an actress and director on film, television, and stage. While her marriage to Samuel L. Jackson, one of Hollywood's most prominent leading men, has occasionally overshadowed the public's awareness of her accomplishments, she has established a reputation among industry insiders as a character actress of rare intensity.

Richardson was born October 21, 1949, in Atlanta, Georgia, where she attended public schools before entering Spelman College, a predominately African-American institution in that city. A theater major, she was heavily involved in student productions. Because Spelman admitted women only, and many of the plays staged there were joint productions with Morehouse College, a neighboring men's school, also predominately African-American. It was at a rehearsal for one of these joint productions, Bertolt Brecht's The Three-Penny Opera, that Richardson met Morehouse student Samuel L. Jackson. The two began dating shortly thereafter, and were married in 1980. Their daughter, Zoe, was born in 1982.

After receiving a bachelor's degree from Spelman in 1974, Richardson left Atlanta for New York City, where she completed a graduate program in drama at New York University and auditioned for roles. Richardson thrived in the intensely competitive atmosphere of New York theater. Her first important break was in 1977, when she landed a major role in the New York Shakespeare Festival's world-premiere production of Aishah Rahman's Unfinished Women Cry in No Man's Land While a Bird Dies in a Gilded Cage. Richardson played Wilma, one of five pregnant teenagers, the "unfinished women" of the title, who must decide over the course of a single day whether to keep their children or put them up for adoption. Only weeks later, Richardson won a substantial role in a traveling production (1977-78) of Ntozake Shange's For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf. Richardson's performance as the Lady in Red was well received by critics in cities across the country, and she was asked to reprise the role for a production mounted by the Alliance Theatre Company of Atlanta several months later (1979-80). The actress then returned to New York, where in 1980 and 1981 she played the role of Carrie in the New Federal Theatre's production of African-American playwright Hughes Allison's 1937 play The Trial of Dr. Beck.

During the early 1980s Richardson withdrew from acting for several years to care for her young daughter. The decision to postpone her career was not an easy one. "I cried like a banshee," she recalled to Joy Bennett Kinnon of Ebony in 2006. "I still believe in family," Richardson continued, "so I had to deal with my feelings. I wasn't going to be good with just nannies raising Zoe." She returned to theater with renewed determination in 1985, when she both starred in and directed a New Federal Theatre production of Laurie Carlos's Nonsectarian Conversations with the Dead, which ran until the following year. She then directed another New Federal Theatre production, Bill Harris's Stories about the Old Days (1986), before taking the stage again herself with starring roles in Wesley Brown's Boogie Woogie and Booker T, in which she played the anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells (New Federal Theatre, 1987); the Negro Ensemble Company's 1987-88 production of Ed Smith's From the Mississippi Delta; the Apple Corps Theatre's production of Cassandra Medley's Ma Rose (1988); Richard Wesley's The Talented Tenth, at the Manhattan Theatre Club's Stage II (1989); and Constance Congdon's Casanova, at the Public Theatre (1991).

Despite her growing success on stage, the late 1980s and early 1990s were a difficult period for Richardson, largely because of her husband's well-publicized struggles with drug and alcohol addiction. In an interview with Diane Weathers in Essence in 1999, Richardson described her determination to keep her marriage intact as Jackson descended further into addiction. "I stayed with him because I had to," she told Weathers. "I made a promise to God that I would be there, [and that] I wasn't going to let him die." At her insistence, and with the help of friends and family, Jackson entered a rehabilitation program, which he completed successfully in time to star in Spike Lee's 1991 film Jungle Fever. As Jackson's movie career resumed, Richardson began to appear in films herself, with roles in no less than three major Hollywood productions in 1991 alone (The Super, Hangin' with the Homeboys, and Fried Green Tomatoes). This frenetic pace continued for the rest of the decade. Among her best-known roles from this period are Nurse Ruth in the drama Lorenzo's Oil (1992); Lorraine in the biographical drama Malcolm X (1992); Harriet in the romantic comedy Sleepless in Seattle (1993); Caroline Jones in the drama Losing Isaiah (1995); and Deputy Marshal Cooper in the action film U.S. Marshals (1998).

In addition to her film and theater work, Richardson has made a number of memorable appearances on television, most notably as Judge Atallah Sims in the courtroom drama 100 Centre Street, which ran on the A&E cable network from 2001 to 2002. Peter Marks described Richardson's careful preparations for the role in the New York Times, noting that she visited the real-life courtrooms at 100 Centre Street in New York and asked a retired judge for guidance on handling a courtroom. Following the end of 100 Centre Street, Richardson concentrated increasingly on a return to the theater, her favorite venue. As she told Bennett in Ebony, the theater "allows me to work on my own terms, and I'm definitely an ‘on my own terms’ type of person." While she has continued to make occasional appearances on film and television, including the 2003 action movie Kill Bill and the 2006 drama Freedomland, she has said repeatedly that Hollywood no longer holds much attraction for her. A clear sign of her return to her roots in theater came in the summer of 2005, when she starred in Carson McCullers's The Member of the Wedding at a small but highly-regarded theater in Connecticut, the Westport Country Playhouse. She has also expressed a strong desire to do more work as a producer and director. To that end, she has reportedly acquired the rights to a number of books and screenplays, including the novel Babylon Sisters by fellow Spelman alumna Pearl Cleage.

At a Glance …

Born October 21, 1949, in Atlanta, GA; married Samuel L. Jackson (an actor), 1980; children: Zoe. Education: Spelman College, BA, theater, 1974; New York University, MA, drama.

Career: Actor in theater, film and television, 1970s—. Directed several plays at the New Federal Theatre, 1985-86. Directed Hairstory (short film), 2000.

Awards: Frederick D. Patterson Award (cowinner with Samuel L. Jackson), United Negro College Fund, 2005.

Addresses: Manager—Peg Donegan, Framework Entertainment, 9057 Nemo St., Ste. C, West Hollywood, CA 90069.

Selected works

Films

Fried Green Tomatoes, 1991.

Hangin' with the Homeboys, 1991.

The Super, 1991.

Juice, 1992.

Lorenzo's Oil, 1992.

Malcolm X, 1992.

Sleepless in Seattle, 1993.

The Last Laugh, 1994.

When a Man Loves a Woman, 1994.

Losing Isaiah, 1995.

Lone Star, 1996.

Julian Po, 1997.

Loved, 1997.

U.S. Marshals, 1998.

(Director) Hairstory (short), 2000.

The Fighting Temptations, 2003.

Kill Bill, 2003.

Freedomland, 2006.

All about Us, 2007.

Blackout, 2007.

Television

One Life to Live, 1992.

Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, 1999.

100 Centre Street, 2001-02.

Theater

Unfinished Women Cry in No Man's Land While a Bird Dies in a Gilded Cage, New York Shakespeare Festival, 1977.

For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf, traveling production, 1977-78, Alliance Theatre Company, 1979-80.

The Trial of Dr. Beck, New Federal Theatre, 1980-81.

(And director) Nonsectarian Conversations with the Dead, New Federal Theatre, 1985-86.

(Director) Stories about the Old Days, New Federal Theatre, 1986.

Boogie Woogie and Booker T, New Federal Theatre, 1987.

From the Mississippi Delta, Negro Ensemble Company, 1987-88.

Ma Rose, Apple Corps Theatre, 1988.

The Talented Tenth, Manhattan Theatre Club, 1989.

Casanova, Public Theatre, 1991.

The Member of the Wedding, Westport Country Playhouse, 2005.

Sources

Periodicals

Ebony, March 2006.

Essence, December 1999; May 2002.

Melus, Autumn 1989-Autumn 1990.

New York Times, May 11, 2001.

—R. Anthony Kugler

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