Tonys: A Moment in the Sun for 'A Raisin in the Sun' Nominee LaTanya Richardson Jackson

LaTanya Richardson Jackson Julianne Moore Anika Noni Rose Sophie Okonedo - H 2014
Courtesy of PR

LaTanya Richardson Jackson Julianne Moore Anika Noni Rose Sophie Okonedo - H 2014

NEW YORK – Most pundits believe that A Raisin in the Sun's LaTanya Richardson Jackson faces an uphill climb in the best actress in a play Tony race, in which she is nominated alongside Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill's Audra McDonald and The Glass Menagerie's Cherry Jones, among others. But, as far as the youthful 64-year-old is concerned, she has already "won" just by getting the chance to play Lena Younger -- aka "Mama" -- opposite Denzel Washington in the latest Broadway revival of Lorraine Hansberry's groundbreaking drama.

On Tuesday afternoon, Julianne Moore hosted a tea in Jackson's honor at Lady Mendl's Tea Salon, a part of The Inn at Irving Place in Gramercy Park, which was attended by many of Jackson's friends from the New York theater and cultural scene -- among them her Tony-nominated Raisin costars Sophie Okonedo and Anika Noni Rose, the play's costume designer Ann Roth, Ellen Barkin, Judith Jamison, Star Jones, Judith Light, S. Epatha Merkerson, Judge Judy Sheindlin, Pauletta Washington (Raisin star Denzel Washington's wife) and Phylicia Rashad, who won a Tony for her portrayal of Mama in the last revival of Raisin a decade ago -- and at which a letter from the first lady of the United States toasting Jackson was read aloud.

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It was a lot to digest for Jackson, who began acting at Spelman College more than 40 years ago, but who has lived much of the last 34 years in the shadow of her famous husband, the actor Samuel L. Jackson (who was one of the few males in attendance on Tuesday). Over the time since, she has worked sporadically in films, on television and off-Broadway -- most notably as part of the first national tour of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf (1977-1980) -- and appeared on Broadway once prior to Raisin, in the 2009 revival of Joe Turner's Come and Gone. She had nothing to do with Raisin, however, until Feb. 8, 2014, less than a month before its opening night. That's when Diahann Carroll suddenly dropped out of the role of Mama, due to the physical demands of the play's schedule, and director Kenny Leon and Washington decided to give Jackson a call.

As part of a roundtable conversation with six of this year's Tony-nominated actresses that will debut on this website later this week, Jackson described her experience in the role as "the biggest and the best gift that I could have ever been given" and said of the tremendous acclaim that has come with it, "I'm almost afraid to look at it, you know?"

On Tuesday, as the invited guests gathered around Jackson with glasses of champagne, Moore began her toast -- the entirety of which you can see in the exclusive video that appears at the bottom of this post -- as follows: "I want to thank you all for coming here to celebrate LaTanya. [To Jackson, who was becoming emotional, she said,] Don't cry, baby, don't cry! It's so wonderful to be in a room with so many people who love her so very much. We're here not just to celebrate her as the exemplary person that she is, but also to celebrate her extraordinary performance in A Raisin in the Sun.

"I saw the play on opening night, and I was absolutely staggered by her performance. I have to say I was laughing hysterically on her entrance and sobbing when she exited, and I don't know that that's ever happened to me at the theater, honestly. In between, she was loving, and maternal, and fierce, and complex, and compassionate, and demanding, and manipulative, and a million things -- a million wonderful things. In short, she was a live human being on stage, and, as we all know, that is the hardest thing to do when you're acting. She accomplished that. When the curtain came down, and I was finally able to choke out some words to my husband, the first thing I said was 'I feel a Tony nomination coming.' And I'm so happy to say that I was right. So congratulations and thank you for that beautiful performance!"

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Jackson thought Moore was finished speaking and approached her to clink glasses, but Moore continued, "I'm not done yet. I had to lead with my toast before I finished with this other thing, because I can't top this! 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." (The Jacksons were early champions of Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign. The Obamas, in turn, have seen only two shows on Broadway during their time in the White House: the two in which Jackson has appeared.)

Moore began reading an original copy of the letter from Michelle Obama: "'Although I am disappointed that I could not be with you today, I am thrilled to send my warmest greetings to all those honoring my dear friend LaTanya Richardson Jackson for her stunning performance in A Raisin in the Sun. 

"A Raisin in the Sun is one of my favorite plays and I feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to see its revival on Broadway. LaTanya, thank you again for bringing one of America's greatest stories to life. Barack and I both agree that your portrayal of Mama stole the show. Your Mama was incredibly dynamic and full of life, and you perfectly showed the painful juxtaposition of a mother's love for her children, loss for her husband and hope for a better, stable future. As you celebrate this special occasion with family and friends, I hope you take great pride in your many accomplishments and contributions to the fine arts community. Throughout your remarkable career, you have captured the hearts of thousands and your powerful performances continue to inspire people across our country and around the world. I wish you and everyone gathered to celebrate you today the very best for an enjoyable tea. Michelle Obama.'"

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Jackson wiped away tears, hugged Moore and took the floor: "I cry because I never made room for anything like this. I never made room for it, so I get overwhelmed, because there was no space. I never thought in my life that I could dream a dream that would include this many beautiful stars — and I don't mean just in terms of your profession, I mean in terms of where your heart lies. So, for me, this is beyond anything that I could dream, and it's full — it's full of everything that any human being could ever — not even think about, but hope for. And for Julianne and Bart [Freundlich, Moore's husband] to do this for me is beyond anything else that I could possibly have imagined.

"When I look in each of your faces, there is something so endearing to me, that I am attached to. There is a piece of each of you that I look at, that I love, that I know, that has left itself with me indelibly forever. So I thank you for this moment and I thank you for this time.… All of the relationships that I have with the women in this room, and with Bart and Sam and Philip [Rinaldi, the Broadway publicist], are so endearing. The Tony nomination is one thing; the Tony win -- I'm not even there. I feel as though … I have won. This is the win. The win is getting to know all of you. So I raise a glass to all of you, and I say thank you for being in my life. God bless each and every one of you, especially you [Julianne].… To the women and the women that we love."

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg