Diahann Carroll honing stage chops anew for Broadway ‘Raisin’

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Diahann Carroll in June 2013 at Women in Film's Crystal + Lucy Awards. Carroll will star opposite Denzel Washington in a 2014 Broadway revival of "A Raisin in the Sun."

Diahann Carroll in June 2013 at Women in Film’s Crystal + Lucy Awards. Carroll will star opposite Denzel Washington in a 2014 Broadway revival of “A Raisin in the Sun.”

Diahann Carroll is no theatrical Rip Van Winkle, although one might think that was the case, going by early reports of her recently announced return to Broadway next spring opposite Denzel Washington in Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun.”

The producers noted in their announcement  of the revival that it will be Carroll’s “first Broadway appearance in over 30 years” – the most recent one having been a brief fill-in turn in 1983 as the psychiatrist in “Agnes of God.” Carroll stepped in for a couple weeks while Elizabeth Ashley took a breather and enjoyed the part enough to play it in a subsequent tour.

Carroll, who recently turned 78, will not, in fact, have decades of cobwebs to shake off when it comes to resuming live performance. In 2010, she starred in an autobiographical musical one-nighter at the Annenberg Theatre in Palm Springs, “Diahann Carroll: The Lady, The Music, The Legend,” which PBS taped for subsequent airing that fall.

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She performed a number of live concerts around that time, including joining Michael Feinstein for a program of Frank Sinatra songs in a fall gala at New York’s Lincoln Center in 2009.

Southern California audiences most recently saw Carroll in a dramatic stage role in 2002 at the Pasadena Playhouse, when she starred opposite Phylicia Rashad as a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law who rub each other the wrong way in “Blue,” Charles Randolph Wright’s  play about a prosperous black family in South Carolina.

Carroll brought “a withering hauteur” to that role, according to the Los Angeles Times review.

As Lena Younger in “Raisin,” scheduled to begin Broadway previews March 8 and run to June 15, 2014, she’ll tackle a classic, supremely moving part that’s marked by love and dignity, if not much hauteur.

Lena dreams of giving her Chicago family a better life after her husband dies: she’ll use the $10,000 life insurance payment to buy a house in the leafy all-white suburb of Clybourne Park.  When her son, Walter Lee Younger, who’ll be played by Washington, loses most of the money in a bad business deal, the question becomes whether the blow will destroy him and tear the family apart.

The cast also will feature Sophie Okonedo as Walter Lee’s wife, Ruth, and Anika Noni Rose as his younger sister, Beneatha.

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Kenny Leon, who directed Sean “Diddy” Combs, Rashad and Audra McDonald in the only previous Broadway revival of “A Raisin in the Sun” in 2004, is back for a second go. Rashad and McDonald took home Tony awards playing Lena and Ruth, but the show didn’t get a Tony nomination for best revival of a play.

In the restacked deck, Washington’s A-list acting credentials (including a 2010 best-actor Tony under Leon’s direction in August Wilson’s “Fences”) might trump an A-list hip-hop star (Combs) for critics and Tony voters.

Carroll played a grandmother in the recent film, “Peeples” and has had a recurring role as a wealthy widow on the USA network television series, “White Collar.” She helped make television history in 1968 starring in the title role of the NBC sitcom “Julia,” playing a nurse and war-widowed single mom in a notable departure from then-prevalent stereotypes for black women on TV.

“Raisin” will be Carroll’s fourth play on Broadway, where she debuted at the end of 1954 in the musical “House of Flowers,” a flop despite a jaw-dropping talent roster that also included Pearl Bailey and Alvin Ailey in the cast, Peter Brook directing, Harold Arlen writing the music and Truman Capote contributing the book and (with Arlen) lyrics, and Herbert Ross and Geoffrey Holder as choreographers.

She won a 1962 Tony Award for best actress in a musical for her role in “No Strings,” Richard Rodgers’ now-forgotten stab at writing lyrics as well as music after the 1960 death of lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II. Carroll’s musical stage credits also include a long run in the mid-1990s as Norma Desmond in the Toronto production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical version of “Sunset Boulevard.”

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“A Raisin in the Sun” is one of the landmark plays in American theater history — one of the first and finest stage dramatizations of black life in post-World War II America. Hansberry won the 1960Pulitzer Prize for drama, but her play was shut out on Tony night because of a landslide for “The Miracle Worker.”

William Gibson (best play), Arthur Penn (director) and Anne Bancroft (best actress for her depiction of Helen Keller’s teacher, Annie Sullivan) won awards over Hansberry, director Lloyd Richards and Claudia McNeil as Lena. Sidney Poitier, as Walter Lee, lost out to Melvyn Douglas, the winner for his part in “The Best Man,” and Ruby Dee was not nominated as Ruth.

In L.A., Ebony Repertory Theatre revived “Raisin” in 2011, with Rashad directing, and it transferred in 2012 to the Kirk Douglas Theatre  in Culver City, packaged by Center Theatre Group in a time-spanning, crosstown diptych with its simultaneous production of Bruce Norris’ “Clybourne Park” at the Mark Taper Forum.

“Clybourne Park,” which won a Pulitzer Prize and a best-play Tony Award, focused first on the white family — unseen in “Raisin” — that’s about to sell its home to the Youngers in the late 1950s, then skips to the 21st century and tensions between the current generation of Youngers and white arrivals whom they regard dimly as would-be gentrifiers of what’s now considered a historically black neighborhood.

Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times

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