Sanaa Lathan Returns to the Stage Unexpectedly
Sanaa Lathan is a Virgo, which becomes quickly apparent when you meet her.
She worries about the photos that are taken of her, though she’s easily one of the world’s most beautiful women. She worries that a visitor’s tape recorder is working properly, though that’s hardly her concern.
“I’m very anal. I worry about everything,” she says, laughing. “We’re perfectionists. And we’re worriers. And we’re very critical, but most critical on ourselves. As you can see.”
Lathan, 39, admits to being a little wound up as she puts the finishing touches on the title character of playwright Lynn Nottage’s new play, “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark.” It’s not always easy for a perfectionist to work in the theater.
“I’m always working, always trying to find new things,” she says in the darkened seats of Second Stage Theater on 43rd Street. “If you saw the play this week and then you see it again the night we close, it will be better. I’ll be better.”
The new play is a fascinating — and often hysterical — look at stereotypes and racism in Hollywood through the career of a fictional black actress, Vera Stark. The first half explores her frustration playing servants in films in the 1930s and the second act flashes forward to debate her pioneering — and yet controversial — legacy. Was she a trailblazer who helped pave the way for today’s black superstars or did she do more harm than good by taking embarrassing parts?
Lathan and Nottage have known each other since 1995 when the actress won her first professional job in the playwright’s “Por’knockers” at the Vineyard Theater. Lathan jumped at the chance to play Vera.
“It’s got everything you’d want as an actress. I love the way she deals with the issues. It’s not angry and it’s not preachy. She makes you think through humor,” says Lathan.
Jo Bonney, who directs the work, said casting Vera Stark posed a challenge. The team needed a woman with genuine move-star looks and yet also someone who had serious stage chops.
“She leads with her mind. So every moment has to feel real to Sanaa. It has to be earned, which is a wonderful thing to watch,” Bonney says. “She understands the responsibility of a role like this and she has chosen to represent it in the most genuine way possible.”
It is Lathan’s first time back to a New York stage since she was nominated for a Tony Award opposite Sean Combs and Phylicia Rashad in the 2004 revival of “A Raisin in the Sun.”
Born in New York City and trained at Yale School of Drama, Lathan has had an eclectic career that’s included independent films such as “Love and Basketball,” big-budget movies such as “Alien vs. Predator,” romantic comedies that include “Brown Sugar” and voice work for cartoons such as “The Cleveland Show.”
“I frustrate my agents a lot because I do get offered things that I turn down. I’m not really driven by money. It always seems to work out in terms of paying my bills, so I’m fine with that,” she says. “At this point in my life, I’m really excited by the work. I will wait for something good to come along.”
She says she had no intention of returning to the stage after spending half a year in London playing Maggie in Tennessee William’s “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” with James Earl Jones.
“Doing such a tremendous role for eight shows a week for six months I was like, ‘I’m never doing another play again. At least any time soon,’” she says. “I mean, it was the most amazing experience and yet one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.”
She promised herself she’d take a five-year break from the stage after ending the run in April 2010 and went off to film Steven Soderbergh’s virus thriller “Contagion” with Matt Damon, Lawrence Fishburn, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow and Marion Cotillard, which comes out in October.
Yet now, just a year later, she finds herself back on stage. Lathan smiles. “Am I going to be sitting at home waiting for the next script to come along or am I going to go to New York for four months and challenge myself?” she asks.
Lathan gets to do two things that make most actors excited — play herself as a woman in her 60s, and play drunk. “I can’t say no to this,” she says. So Lathan gave her two dogs to her mom, left her home in the Hollywood Hills and flew East to play a complex character off-Broadway.
“I feel like even though she’s a fictional character, she is an everywoman in terms of great artists who never get their due,” says Lathan, who compares Vera to Zora Neale Hurston, the rediscovered author of “Their Eyes Were Watching God.”
To prepare for the new role, Lathan studied films, including those of Theresa Harris, who had inspired Nottage’s play. A beautiful and talented actress, Harris was often relegated to playing maids in such 1930s films as “Baby Face” and “The Flame of New Orleans.”
To portray such a woman decades later, Lathan watched old footage of “The Ed Sullivan Show,” where guests such as Pearl Bailey, Eartha Kitt and Betty Davis would often get pretty deep during long interview segments fueled by cocktails.
“I’ve made a name for myself in TV and film and that I’m so grateful for, but I love the experience of playing a character from beginning to end every night. That’s really fulfilling for an actor.”