Denzel Washington in 'A Raisin in the Sun': Why he'll play a character half his age

Denzel Washington, Mount Vernon: Denzel Washington attends the Denzel Washington, Mount Vernon: Denzel Washington attends the UK Premiere of 'Flight' at The Empire Cinema on January 17, 2013 in London. Denzel Washington was raised in Mount Vernon. (Jan. 17, 2013) Photo Credit: Getty Images

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Linda Winer Newsday theater critic and arts columnist Linda Winer.

Winer is chief theater critic and arts columnist for Newsday, which she joined in 1987. ...

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We may as well get this out of the way right now.

Yes, Denzel Washington is going to play Walter Lee Younger next spring in a revival of "A Raisin in the Sun." Washington will be 60, portraying a character Lorraine Hansberry described in her landmark 1959 script as "a lean, intense young man in his middle thirties, inclined to quick nervous movements and erratic speech habits -- and always in his voice there is a quality of indictment." Indeed, Sidney Poitier was a lean, intense young 32 when he created the role.

So the question, of course, is why. Why, with the entire theater library at his feet, will one of the most bankable and gifted stars in the world return to Broadway as a man half his age?

Also, putting aside this inevitable question for a moment, why would Washington, who won a Tony in 2010 for his magnetic and moving performance in August Wilson's "Fences," choose to follow it with a play seen in a stratospherically high-profile revival in 2004? Not only did that one include the surprisingly OK stage debut of Sean Combs as Walter, but it had Tony-winning performances by Audra McDonald as Walter's wife and Phylicia Rashad as his mother. And, lest they didn't reach enough potential audience on Broadway, director Kenny Leon adapted his production for a rare three-hour of prime time on ABC in 2008.

No matter how many questions theater people are asking about this coming attraction, there is just one answer.

Denzel Washington wants to do it.

Scott Rudin, the film, cable-TV and theater megaproducer behind "Fences," graciously tries not to make a person feel just a bit small-minded for raising the question. "When a great artist wants to do a great American play, people want to see it," he told me in a recent phone interview. "I don't think age matters.

"Denzel feels a huge, huge responsibility to the play," continued Rudin, the most independent of Broadway's independent producers and responsible for a staggering percentage of the most intelligent recent theater on Broadway -- as well as a cheeky little bonanza called "The Book of Mormon."

"Denzel came to us," says Rudin. "He has a clear idea of how he wants to do it. Classics stay alive because a great actor or a great director wants to do them."

To prove his point, we compare indelible memories of a 1999 benefit reading of Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" that starred Uta Hagen, celebrating her 80th birthday, 37 years after she made history as the middle-aged Martha. For maybe 11/2 minutes, it seemed odd that this elderly woman was braying Martha's opening lines, but then, whoosh, we were compelled to believe whatever she wanted us believe. Age was completely irrelevant, a trivial sideshow to arguably the best experiences of this play I ever had.

It helped enormously that the ages of her expert co-stars -- Jonathan Pryce, Mia Farrow and (less expertly that night) Matthew Broderick -- skewed on the older side of tradition.

It feels unseemly to mention ages, but Washington has made them matter. For this "Raisin," Walter's mother will be played by Diahann Carroll, 78, returning to Broadway for the first time since she was in "Agnes of God" 30 years ago. Also in the cast are Anika Noni Rose and Sophie Okonedo.

"The reason for this revival is this cast," says Rudin, whose last risky casting choice -- Philip Seymour Hoffman as Willy Loman in Mike Nichols' 2012 Tony winning revival of "Death of a Salesman" -- turned out brilliantly unsettling. "These actors will explain this play."

Nontraditional casting began, as I remember it, with race. Any actor of any color, so the argument goes, should be able to play just about any role. Our job is to not notice it. But really, the first nontraditional casting came with gender and, especially, the all-male theater of Shakespeare.

Are we meant to perceive the characters as older, or pretend they are not, in the coming production which, like the 2004 revival, is directed by Leon? This is, after all, the still-vibrant, still-disturbing drama about a mother who yearns to move her family to a better neighborhood and her son, a chauffeur with his own dream, who lives with his wife, their 10-year-old son and his college-age sister in his mother's flat with the shared bathroom.

Rudin disagrees at my description of the revival as nontraditional casting. But he hints at a different vision for Hansberry's drama, which, not incidentally, was the first play by a black woman on Broadway.

"I think the play is about a guy infantilized by a strict, aggressive mother," he says, offering tantalizing meat to Internet chatterers already hungry for a fight.

Then he lists all the aging actors who have dared to be "Hamlet" . . . "and is anyone saying we see 'Hamlet' too often?" In fact, except for the classics and except for the English, the theater has tended to be more literal than the less realistic arts. Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline played the pubescent Romeo and Juliet for one fundraising night in Central Park this summer. But that was presented as a stunt.

Still, nobody told Margot Fonteyn that she was too old to play the dewy "Sleeping Beauty," or tells Plácido Domingo that he mustn't play dashing rakes. As Rudin reminds me, the theater is "much more forgiving" than movies about less explicable physicalities.

Ultimately, the reason for this "Raisin" comes back to Washington. "He has had an astonishing movie career, he doesn't have anything to prove," says Rudin knowledgeably, "but he is in love with the stage." While playing a pretty bland Brutus in a Broadway "Julius Caesar" in 2005, the actor spoke to theater students where he studied at Fordham University's Lincoln Center campus.

"You can't learn how to act well in film," he said. "That's what I am doing back on Broadway, trying to get better. It's like going back to the factory to have your instrument sharpened . . . I'd much rather be good than famous."

He didn't talk then about "Raisin," which was famously inspired by Langston Hughes' poem about "a dream deferred . . . Does it dry up, like a raisin in the sun?" Better late, I'm betting, than deferred forever.

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