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Denzel Washington on 'Raisin' and Sidney Poitier

By Mark Kennedy Associated Press | 3/31/2014, 9:45 a.m.
The Denzel Washington you meet backstage at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre is not exactly living a glamorous Hollywood life. He's ...
This image released by Philip Rinaldi Publicity shows David Cromer, from left, Bryce Clyde Jenkins, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Anika Noni Rose, Denzel Washington and Sophie Okonedo during a performance of "A Raisin in the Sun," at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York. Photo by Philip Rinaldi Publicity, Brigitte Lacombe/AP.

Washington may be the Academy Award-winning actor known for "Glory" and "Training Day," but he says his dream when he first started acting at Fordham University was to be onstage. His first two roles in college were "The Emperor Jones" by Eugene O'Neill and Shakespeare's "Othello."

"I was too ignorant to know what pressure even was," he laughs.

As a young man, Washington once caught James Earl Jones star in "Oedipus the King" uptown and then sneaked into Jones' dressing room, where he hung out as the older actor greeted well-wishers.

"Obviously he didn't know who I was — I was a student. I'm picking up his rings and his props while he's talking to the people. He probably looked and thought, 'Oh, he's probably a young actor.' I'm like, 'Man, that's what I want. I want to do that. I want to do what he's doing,'" he says.

The revival of "A Raisin in the Sun" hasn't been completely without drama: Last month, the cast was shook up when Diahann Carroll pulled out and Richardson Jackson stepped in as the family matriarch.

"Diahann realized she just couldn't handle it, physically. If we live long enough, we're all going to come to that place where we go, like, 'OK,'" says Washington. "Even I had my doubts in the beginning. Can I remember all this?"

Richardson Jackson, who was last on Broadway in the Tony-winning 2009 revival of "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," had acted before opposite Washington — they both were in Ntozake Shange's "Spell #7" in the late '70s. He pushed for her to come onboard to play his mother, saying "I knew she was strong and powerful."

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This image released by Philip Rinaldi Publicity shows Denzel Washington, left, and LaTanya Richardson Jackson during a performance of "A Raisin in the Sun," at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York. Photo by Philip Rinaldi Publicity, Brigitte Lacombe/AP.

At 64, she's only five years older than Washington, 59, but he notes that a 32-year-old Poitier played Walter Lee opposite 41-year-old Claudia McNeil in the original Broadway production.

"No, you can't have a baby at 5 but I don't think you can have one at 9, either," jokes Washington. "That's acting. She's my mom and I'm her son."

This time on Broadway, Washington has changed a few things, starting with his Playbill bio, which had grown unwieldy. He sliced it down: "It was really blowing my own horn," he says. "I don't need to advertise. I got the part."

He also dedicates his performance to the late Tony Scott, who directed Washington in such films as "Crimson Tide" and "Man on Fire" and committed suicide in 2012. "I thought about Tony and I wanted to mention Tony," says Washington.

His mother, who turned 90 on Saturday, plans to come to New York to see her son in the play and another who has promised to come and cheer is none other than Poitier. "I said to him, 'Don't come early,'" Washington says. "He said, 'No, I'm coming.' I said, 'Not early. And don't tell me when.'"


Online: http://www.raisinbroadway.com


Follow Mark Kennedy on Twitter at @KennedyTwits