Brief Encounter With ... Cat on a Hot Tin Roofís starsDate: 30 November 2009
In Debbie Allenís hit Broadway revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, now opening in the West End, Tennessee Williamsí Southern plantation-dwelling family are all played by black actors, with Tony Award-winning Broadway stars James Earl Jones and Phylicia Rashad reprising their parental roles as Big Daddy and Big Mama, alongside new cast members Sanaa Lathan and Briton Adrian Lester.
In Tennessee Williamsí Pulitzer Prize-winning 1955 classic, ailing Big Daddy's birthday party sets the scene for family recriminations and revelations. His son Brick, a former college sports star, is more upset about the death of his friend Skipper than the disintegration of his marriage to a sexually frustrated wife Maggie.
The 1958 film of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof starred Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor as Brick and Maggie, with Burl Ives recreating his stage role as Big Daddy. The last West End revival, at the Lyric Theatre in 2001, was led by Brendan Fraser as Brick, Frances O'Connor as Maggie, Ned Beatty as Big Daddy and Gemma Jones as Big Mama. A 1988 National Theatre revival starred Ian Charleson, Lindsay Duncan, Eric Porter and Barbara Leigh-Hunt.
Both James Earl Jones and Phylicia Rashad are Tony Award winners; Rashad for A Raisin in the Sun and Jones twice over for August Wilsonís Fences and The Great White Hope. In 1998, Jones was also presented with a Drama Desk Special Award for being "a commanding force on the stage for nearly half a centuryĒ. Rashad recently appeared in the Broadway production of August: Osage County and, off-stage, is best known as wife Claire Huxtable from the American TV sitcom The Cosby Show, which ran from 1984 to 1992.
Sanaa Lathan appeared with Rashad in, and was Tony nominated for, A Raisin in the Sun. Her screen credits include Nip/Tuck on television and Out of Time on film. Adrian Lester returns to the London stage for the first time since 2003 when he took the title role in Henry V at the National. His other stage credits include Six Degrees of Separation, Company, As You Like It and Peter Brookís The Tragedy of Hamlet. Heís become best known to British TV fans as con artist Mickey Bricks in Hustle, and has also starred in films including Primary Colours, Love's Labour's Lost, Dust, The Final Curtain and Maybe Baby.
Debbie Allen is an Emmy and Golden Globe Award-winning director, choreographer and actor (a familiar face from the original film and TV series of Fame). The new London cast of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof also includes leading black British actors Richard Blackwood, Derek Griffiths, Peter de Jersey, Joseph Mydell and Nina Sosanya.
How does the family being black change the play?
Adrian Lester: Itíll change how people look at it, definitely. And I think if you want do a classic you have to re-imagine it and re-engage with it and find a new way in for the audience as well - what a way in!
Sanaa Lathan: I think the play is universal. There are so many different themes that run through it: unrequited love, not giving up on your dream, death and dying, family. It could be any family, any race, and I think thatís what makes it a classic. It transcends colour lines and speaks to the human condition.
James Earl Jones: Itís about family. Thatís the main thing. Seeing the play through new cultural eyes, I donít find that too important frankly Ė except that it gives me a chance to play it when ordinarily I wouldnít.
What attracted you to your roles?
Allen: James really is Big Daddy; he embodies the girth, the breadth, the power, the fortitude and also the softness of the man.
Phylicia Rashad: James is perfection. He brings an ease to all that power, that image, and all that anger thatís beneath it. He brings so many levels and subtlety, and when he roars, he roars.
Lester: Brickís not a character that was ever on my radar. Thereís a lot of work where, because of the way itís always been done, you never thought it was open to you. Then suddenly an opportunity like this comes along and you think, I have to do it. For me, though, itís always about the character rather than the culture or colour and itís the same in this case. Brick is the perfect leading man who does not want to lead - he wants to do anything but. Heís odd from every other leading man Iíve played in that he does not want to take any steps toward solving his problems or finding happiness. He just wants to drink, in a cold, calm way, until he feels peace.
There are family ties in the company as well as the script, arenít there?
Rashad: Working with Debbie is always a lot of fun because sheís high energy. We spend so much time outside of the rehearsal hall laughing about whatever has happened inside it. She is so good.
Lathan: Phylicia, Debbie and I go way back. My mother use to dance with Debbie (on Fame), and Iíve literally known them since I was a baby.
This production was first mounted on Broadway in 2008. How did that go?
Jones: Phylicia and I are the only refugees from that cast. It was a glorious experience. I didnít think New York audiences were such good listeners, but they came with real respect for this play. Many of them didnít know who Tennessee Williams was. And many didnít know it was written about a white family, so when they saw a black family on stage they just accepted that.
Allen: We had a wonderful run in New York. We explored the play for the play itself. We didnít try to pay homage to anything that had been done before. I didnít even look at the movie. I wasnít thinking about anything other than Tennesseeís words and how to make them come alive.
How do you feel about now doing Cat in London?
Allen: I love London so much! My first introduction to this city was with the cast of Fame on that glorious musical journey, that show that changed the world. My next great experience was coming here to work with the RSC. The theatre here is so alive, the people are so alive. I just love it. The first thing I said to my producer Stephen Byrd was: ďAre we going to London? Come on honey, let us go!Ē So here we are and I couldnít be more thrilled.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof opens on 1 December 2009 (previews from 22 November). This Friday 4 December, the Broadway stars of the production Ė James Earl Jones, Phylicia Rashad and Sanaa Lathan Ė will be guest presenters at the launch party of our tenth annual Whatsonstage.com Awards at Cafť de Paris. See awards.whatsonstage.com for more information. A version of this interview also appears in the Dec/January issue of our sister print title, Whatís On Stage magazine, which is out on 4 December.