NEW YORK — Tony Award winners Diahann Carroll and Denzel Washington will play mother and son on Broadway in a spring revival of the classic American play "A Raisin in the Sun," an opportunity that has left him "overjoyed" and her "thrilled."
"I think it's one of our most original plays and I think that's why it keeps coming back," said Carroll by phone from Los Angeles. Washington, en route to a film set in Boston on Thursday afternoon, agreed: "It's one of those classics."
Previews of Lorraine Hansberry's play begin March 8 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre with an opening night scheduled for April 3. Kenny Leon, who directed Washington on Broadway to a Tony in "Fences," will helm the production.
Both Carroll and Washington confessed that they were somewhat daunted by the prospects of an eight-show week. For Carroll, it's the first time on Broadway in 30 years but "once you're into the flow of it, it becomes a life style." Washington, speaking on the way to the set of "The Equalizer," said theater and film — with its 14-hour days — were both tests of endurance.
"While you're sleeping tonight, I'll be running around on the street of Boston so I don't take that lightly," he said. "I don't think eight-shows-a-week is necessarily harder, but the energy I get from the audiences, you don't get that on a film."
Set in the late 1950s in a rundown South Side Chicago apartment, "A Raisin in the Sun" deals with the hopes and disappointments of a black family trying to find a better life in a white neighborhood. It was the first play by a black woman to be produced on Broadway. Hansberry became the youngest American and the first black winner of the New York Drama Critic's Circle Award, in 1959.
Carroll, 78, met Hansberry before the playwright died of cancer at age 34 in 1965. "She was extraordinary and I think that's one of the reasons why it is an honor to be asked to be part of this," said Carroll. "She faced everything with such intelligence and grace. She was dying when we met but you would never have known that."
This will be the second Broadway revival of the play. The original Broadway production in 1959 featured Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Claudia McNeil and Diana Sands, all who reunited for a 1961 film adaptation. The last Broadway revival occurred in 2004, starring Diddy, Phylicia Rashad, Sanaa Lathan and Audra McDonald.
The play's central conflict concerns Lena Younger's late husband's insurance money. She wants to use it to move the family out of their cramped tenement apartment and into a house in a white neighborhood on Chicago's South Side. She also wants to pay her daughter's medical school tuition.
But her son, Walter Lee Younger, sees the money as a chance to open a liquor store and be more like the wealthy white men for whom he works as a chauffeur. He wants to make life better for his own son and pregnant wife. "I open and close car doors all day long. I drive a man around in his limousine and I say, 'Yes, sir; no, sir; very good sir,'" he tells his mother in one scene.
Washington, whose film "2 Guns" opens Friday and was recently a best actor contender at the Academy Awards for playing alcoholic pilot Whip Whitaker in the film "Flight," recalls the film fondly, while Carroll vividly remembers seeing the original cast on Broadway.
"It was like an out-of-body experience watching that group of people make this thing come alive," she said. She had always wished to play the part of Ruth Younger, Dee's part. "Playing the mother is not something I really thought I'd live to be," she said with a laugh.
The new production will also star Academy Award-nominee Sophie Okonedo from "Hotel Rwanda," making her Broadway debut as Ruth Younger, and Tony Award-winner Anika Noni Rose ("Caroline, or Change") as Beneatha Younger.
The cast also includes Stephen Tyrone Williams, most recently in "Lucky Guy," and Jason Dirden and Tony-nominee Stephen McKinley Henderson, both of whom were in the recent revival of "Fences" with Washington. Influential theater and film creator Scott Rudin is producing.
During her long career, Carroll earned a Tony for the musical "No Strings" and an Oscar nomination for "Claudine." She became the first black woman to star in a non-servant role on TV in "Julia," the groundbreaking situation comedy that aired from 1968 to 1971. This marks her first return to Broadway since she was a replacement in "Agnes of God" in the early 1980s and she's already spent three months working on her character.
"I feel that most of us like to come back to the theater for multiple reasons — it is a reminder of what we can do, what we cannot do and what it is we need to address in terms of holding on to whatever gifts God was kind enough to give us," Carroll said. "It's a responsibility to that gift. Things like that come with responsibility and I'm not sure that I expected it at this time, but I think Scott Rudin is an extraordinary human being."
Washington, 58, has two Oscars to his name for "Glory" (1989) and "Training Day" (2001). His other nominations came for "City Freedom," ''Malcolm X" and "The Hurricane." He won a best actor Tony in 2010 in August Wilson's "Fences," playing the larger-than-life garbage man whose dashed dreams of baseball glory have given him a rigid, embittered sense of responsibility. He had previously been on Broadway in 2005 in a production of "Julius Caesar."
He and Carroll have met over the years and share a mutual respect. She calls him an "extraordinary talent" and he says simply: "Diahann Carroll. That's all you need to say. What a story. What a life."
"A Raisin in the Sun" is held in special regard by writers and historians. Playwright Bruce Norris' "Clybourne Park," which imagines what might have happened to the Youngers, won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for drama and the Tony Award for best play in 2012. And this year, British actor, director and playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah unveiled his spin-off play "Beneatha's Place" in Baltimore.
"A Raisin in the Sun" and "Clybourne Park" were among the most produced plays in the nation in the 2012-2013 season, according to the Theatre Communications Group.