Pauletta Washington and LaTanya Richardson Jackson might be married to superstar actors Denzel Washington and Samuel L. Jackson, but these two longtime friends are successful actors in their own right. One joy of their friendship is that it allows them to blend the personal and the professional, such as their latest theatrical collaboration, “Stories About the Old Days,” which is available online to watch for free this weekend.
Washington stars and sings in this acclaimed 1986 drama about hidden secrets, directed by Jackson and produced by Woodie King Jr.’s New Federal Theatre in New York. Jackson also directed the original production that starred legend Abbey Lincoln. The theater is hosting the free online reading until 11:59 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 1 at https://www.newfederaltheatre.com.
For the Washington and Jackson families, supporting Black theater is a family affair that dates to the 1970s and 1980s. At that time, few Black actors achieved the mega roles in television and film. Instead they honed their skills on a robust Black theater scene in New York City that spanned Off Broadway to Broadway.
Classically trained performers, Jackson is a Spelman grad and Washington studied at Julliard and the North Carolina School of the Arts. Jackson has a career that includes Broadway (“To Kill A Mockingbird” and “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone”), television (“Blue Bloods and “100 Centre Street”) and film (from “Raising Isaiah” to “U.S. Marshals”).
She has worked with Woodie King since the 1977 touring production of Ntozake Shange’s “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf.” She’s starred in New Federal Theatre’s productions of “The Trial of Dr. Beck,” “Nonsectarian Conversations with the Dead” and in “Boogie Woogie and Booker T” where she portrayed Ida B. Wells.
Washington, a musician-singer-actress, has Broadway credits like “Sophisticated Ladies,” “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Jerry’s Girls.” On television, she was in the movie “Wilma” and recently a regular in Spike Lee’s “She’s Gotta Have It.” She was a singer in “Philadelphia” and was part of Woodie King’s production of Ossie Davis’ “The People of Clarendon County.”
“Stories About the Old Days” isn’t the first theater collaboration between the friends. In 2013, Tony Award-winning director Kenny Leon tapped them to present August Wilson’s classic play “Two Trains Running” at the Kenny Leon True Colors Theatre in Atlanta. Jackson directed and Washington starred as Risa, a waitress at the diner. They had just worked with Leon on the Civil Rights television drama “The Watsons Go to Birmingham.”
At the time, the friends reflected on their careers and family commitment, sharing why they decided to curb their careers when the husbands’ starring roles began to skyrocket. “Sam and I had made a pact. Since we were both from broken homes, I said, ‘I am not going to have a kid that wasn’t raised by two parents.’ I didn’t care what it took,” Jackson, who has one daughter, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Washington agreed. “There’s a lot of talk about the Hollywood families, but that commitment that the two of them made, Denzel and I made the same commitment,” said the mother of four children, including “Tenet” and “BlacKkKlansman” star John David Washington. “I came from a solid home. I came home; my mom was there.”
“Two Trains Running” turned out to be kismet for both families. One year later, while Jackson was visiting New York to see Washington’s music performance at the Public Theatre, she got a call from Kenny Leon. The director was frantic that Diahann Carroll had dropped out of rehearsals for the Broadway revival production of “A Raisin in the Sun.” He wanted her to play mother Lena Younger with Denzel Washington’s character, Walter Younger, as her son. Although Jackson was only five years older than Denzel, she scooped up the part of the family matriarch and created a performance that earned her a Tony nomination for Best Actress in a Play.
Now Jackson and Washington are coming full circle at the New Federal Theatre, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary.
“Pauletta and LaTanya were early artists at the New Federal Theatre, and they are coming back to close out the retrospective series of New Federal Theatre plays,” said King, who also mentored Denzel in his theatrical role of Malcolm X in “When the Chickens Came Home to Roost,” which inspired Spike Lee’s landmark movie, “X,” produced and directed Chadwick Boseman’s first New York play and was the inspiration for his NFT assistant Issa Rae’s “Adventures of an Awkward Black Girl” series.
“Denzel Washington and Samuel L. Jackson were also part of the beginning of New Federal Theatre,” NFT’s legendary founder and director added. “In those days, there was no place else for them. Once they were seen, they became famous.”