When you’re Denzel Washington and preparing to step into the lead role of Walter Lee Younger for a Broadway revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, who better to discuss this moment with than your neighbor, especially if he happens to be Sidney Poitier, the man who originated the role? “He actually lives down the hill from me in L.A.,” Washington tells EBONY. “I have spent some real quality time with Sidney. I [recorded] him on my iPhone and filmed a little bit, but I ain’t showing nobody because I wouldn’t do that to him. He’s such a gentleman and so generous. It’s interesting to get to know him a little better and hear him talk about the play and his experiences. He even got up and was giving me some of the emotion from certain scenes. It was fascinating to watch.”
All eyes will certainly be scoping out Washington when the production of the classic goes up this month at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, the same place it premiered in 1959. Hansberry, a Chicago native, made history when she became the first African-American woman to write a play produced on Broadway. Raisin tells the story of a Chicago family, the Youngers, whose dreams of a better life and family unity are nearly derailed when each has aggressive plans for the insurance payout matriarch Lena Younger is waiting to collect following the death of her husband. “I’m not concerned about how it comes out. I’m concerned about what I put in,” says Washington, who plays the emotionally charged son, a limousine driver hoping to use the money to open a liquor store. “I just try to bring 100 percent of myself to it and try to give the hardworking people what they paid for. If nothing else, I’m going to be ready.”
Legendary actress Diahann Carroll was initially tapped for the role of Lena, which would have signaled her return to Broadway after 30 years; however, due to scheduling rigors, the 78-year-old actress withdrew from the production. LaTanya Richardson Jackson will play the role, starring alongside Tony winner Anika Noni Rose as Walter’s sister, Beneatha, and Sophie Okonedo as his wife, Ruth. Kenny Leon directs this production, and Scott Rudin serves as producer.
In 2004, Leon directed the first Raisin Broadway revival, which starred Phylicia Rashad and Sean Combs. “This is the play that keeps on giving,” says the renowned director. “I feel honored and a responsibility to be telling this story about the status of the American dream. I look back at 1959, and I look at now. Where have we come, and where are our dreams? We now have an African-American president. A lot has happened in this country.”
Raisin reunites Washington with Leon, who directed the Tony Award-winning Fences in 2010, which garnered Washington a Tony as well. “Denzel started out onstage, and to have a commitment to return to the stage every three or four years says more than a little bit about his dedication to being the greatest actor he can be. He’s the best.”
For the acclaimed performer, returning to the stage now feels like a full-circle moment for him. “In our rehearsal space, I could look out the window and see the school where I started acting,” says Washington, the only African-American man in history to have won an Academy Award for Best Actor (Training Day) and Best Supporting Actor (Glory). “Forty years ago, I was there learning to become an actor. It’s been an interesting journey. I’ve been fortunate to interpret two of the greatest playwrights in American history, August Wilson and Lorraine Hansberry. I’m humbled by the opportunities I’ve had.”
Does Washington have his sights set on another Tony? “My mother always said, ‘Man gets the award, but God gives the reward.’ So it’s all good.”
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Senior Editor, EBONY Magazine