LaTanya Richardson Jackson cheered at elegant tea

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NEW YORK (AP) — These days, an invitation to a tea party likely means lots of heated political talk. But at one held this week in Manhattan, the only thing brewing was Earl Grey and a love fest for a Tony Award nominee.

LaTanya Richardson Jackson was the guest of honor as two dozen celebrity friends ranging from Judge Judy to Star Jones came to toast the actress, currently starring on Broadway in “A Raisin in the Sun” opposite Denzel Washington.

The party, at Lady Mendl’s Tea Salon at the Inn at Irving Place, was hosted by Julianne Moore and the good vibes came from as far away as the White House — Michelle Obama sent a letter with her “warmest greetings.”

Among those who attended Tuesday included producer and writer Tonya Lewis Lee, editor Susan Taylor, dancer and choreographer Judith Jamison, floral designer Saundra Parks, costume designer Ann Roth and actresses Marsha Stephanie Blake, Judith Light, Ellen Barkin, S. Epatha Merkerson, Michelle Beck, Pauletta Washington, Phylicia Rashad and Julie Halston. Richardson Jackson’s husband, Samuel L. Jackson, looked cool in a white cap and white shorts.

“I thank you for this moment,” said the guest of honor, holding a flute of bubbly. “I raise a glass for all of you. Thank you for being in my life. God bless each and every one of you.” She ended with the cheer: “To the women and the women that we love.”

Moore, who befriended Richardson Jackson when they shot the 2006 film “Freedomland,” said she saw “A Raisin in the Sun” on opening night and was “absolutely staggered” by her pal’s portrayal of matriarch Lena Younger.

“She was loving and maternal and fierce and complex and passionate and demanding and manipulative — a million, wonderful things,” said Moore, the newly crowned best actress winner at the Cannes Film Festival. “In short, she was a live human being onstage. And as we know, that’s the hardest thing to do.”

Lorraine Hansberry’s play, set in 1950s Chicago, centers on a struggling working-class black family anxiously awaiting a $10,000 insurance check and the ensuing squabbles over how to spend it.

Richardson Jackson’s co-star Sophie Okonedo, a British actress who naturally knows a thing or two about tea, attended the party and was excited to have a photo taken of her with Judge Judy (“My mum is her No. 1 fan,” she said.)

Okonedo, who also earned a Tony nod for the play, said Richardson Jackson, 64, who has appeared in the films “Sleepless in Seattle” and “Malcolm X,” was finally having her chance to shine this award season.

“She’s such a brave actress and also she’s such an amazing person,” Okonedo said. “As you can see, she’s got a lot of friends. I think a lot of people are just glad to see her get her chance finally.”

Mrs. Obama, who sent a signed letter on White House stationary, saw the show on April 12 with the president. “Your powerful performances continue to inspire people across our country and around the world,” she wrote.

Richardson Jackson’s Tony nomination almost didn’t happen: She was visiting New York in February when “A Raisin in the Sun” director Kenny Leon asked her to step in for Diahann Carroll, who pulled out during rehearsals because of the vigorous demands of the show. Performances started a month later.

Now the actress, who was last on Broadway in the 2009 revival of “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” faces off on June 8 against fellow best actress nominees Tyne Daly, Cherry Jones, Audra McDonald and Estelle Parsons.

Co-star Anika Noni Rose, a Tony winner for “Caroline or Change” who also has been nominated this year, said Richardson Jackson was nervous at first to jump into the ensemble but soon fit in with ease.

“She came in at the last minute, just about off-book, and has been fantastic. Like gangbusters since Day One,” Rose said. “It has been wonderful. I can’t imagine this cast being another way.”

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Online: http://www.raisinbroadway.com

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Follow Mark Kennedy on Twitter at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits

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