In Debbie Allen’s hit Broadway revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, now opening in the West End, Tennessee Williams’ 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 Williams’ 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 Wilson’s 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 century”. 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 Brook’s The Tragedy of Hamlet. He’s 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?
Debbie Allen: It doesn’t really. What we’re doing is exploring and excavating these characters and their circumstances. That they are black people translates very well. We only changed a couple of lines of dialogue and moved the time forward gracefully.

Adrian Lester: It’ll 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 that’s what makes it a classic. It transcends colour lines and speaks to the human condition.

James Earl Jones: It’s about family. That’s the main thing. Seeing the play through new cultural eyes, I don’t find that too important frankly – except that it gives me a chance to play it when ordinarily I wouldn’t.

What attracted you to your roles?
Jones: I saw Burl Ives do Big Daddy when I came to New York to study acting in the 1950s. I’ve always wanted to play this role, it’s almost written for me. I am a cracker: a black cracker, a black redneck. I know more about rednecks than most Northern white actors would know because I’m from Mississippi and that world. I understand Big Daddy. He’s a mean man because life was mean to him and he learnt how to handle it in a mean way.

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 that’s beneath it. He brings so many levels and subtlety, and when he roars, he roars.

Lester: Brick’s not a character that was ever on my radar. There’s a lot of work where, because of the way it’s 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, it’s always about the character rather than the culture or colour and it’s the same in this case. Brick is the perfect leading man who does not want to lead - he wants to do anything but. He’s odd from every other leading man I’ve 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, aren’t there?
Allen: Phylicia is my sister. I told her if she didn’t do this play I was going to tell Mama - so she did! It’s really good working with her because I know her so well. Some of the finest directors use the same actors over and over and over, for example, Martin Scorsese with De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio. When you know a person, you know what to pull out of them. Knowing Phylicia so closely means I can really push her buttons in a way that maybe other directors might not know how to. Also I know where she comes from and the depth within her.

Rashad: Working with Debbie is always a lot of fun because she’s 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 I’ve literally known them since I was a baby.

This production was first mounted on Broadway in 2008. How did that go?
Rashad: To put it modestly, we were the most successful play during that Broadway season. It was all so exciting.

Jones: Phylicia and I are the only refugees from that cast. It was a glorious experience. I didn’t think New York audiences were such good listeners, but they came with real respect for this play. Many of them didn’t know who Tennessee Williams was. And many didn’t 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 didn’t try to pay homage to anything that had been done before. I didn’t even look at the movie. I wasn’t thinking about anything other than Tennessee’s words and how to make them come alive.

How do you feel about now doing Cat in London?
Jones: All actors want to do it again. If you loved what you did, you want to do it again. If you have a whole new family to do it with, it’s a special privilege. With a different cast, you hear and feel things differently and you make choices you probably wouldn’t have considered before. Londoners tend to more engaged with the theatre experience. They really are connected. They love language and, if it’s well-rendered language, they are there with you. Attention is a wonderful thing.

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: “Are we going to London? Come on honey, let us go!” So here we are and I couldn’t 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 – James Earl Jones, Phylicia Rashad and Sanaa Lathan – will be guest presenters at the launch party of our tenth annual Awards at Café de Paris. See for more information. A version of this interview also appears in the Dec/January issue of our sister print title, What’s On Stage magazine, which is out on 4 December.

An abridged version of this interview appears in the December/January issue of What’s On Stage magazine (formerly Theatregoer), which is now available exclusively to Club members. To subscribe to future print editions - and get all the benefits of our Theatre Club - click here!!

** DON’T MISS our Outing to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof on 10 December 2009 – inc FREE poster & post-show Q&A with the cast!! – all for £34.50 - click here to book now! **