Anika Noni Rose has no problem pestering Denzel Washington. Onstage -- the two play siblings Beneatha and Walter Lee Younger in the new Broadway revival of "A Raisin in the Sun" -- and off. His A-lister fame might intimidate some, she acknowledges. Not her.
The play, which opened Thursday at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, follows a striving, working-class, African-American family in the 1960s confronting major issues -- race, money, hairstyles. Much has been made of Washington's age -- he's 59, in a role playwright Lorraine Hansberry described as mid-30s -- but that fades as the tale unfolds, in part due to Rose, 41, who smirks, pokes and rolls her eyes at him with such ease they transform into close, typical sibs.
Rose won a Tony for 2004's "Caroline, or Change." She later twinkled as Lorrell in the film "Dreamgirls," and as Tiana, Disney's first African-American princess, in "The Princess and the Frog." She co-stars with Whoopi Goldberg in Lifetime's "A Day Late and a Dollar Short" (debuting April 19), and plays Thandie Newton's fraternal twin in "Half of a Yellow Sun" (out this summer). Rose spoke with Newsday contributor Joseph V. Amodio before a rehearsal.
This is one of those plays they just revive and revive.
I know. You think, eh, another "Death of a Salesman." Another "Raisin." Then, I started reading the script and realized how poignant it is. And timely.
You and Denzel seem to have an authentic sibling bond.
Yes ... I just run in and mess with him. Just the other day in rehearsal -- I was doing something, and he was like ... "What is this? Mess-with-Denzel Day?" It's good that we're comfortable ribbing each other. If we had to be onstage feeling precious about somebody and their name, it would take away from what we're doing.
Do any of the characters remind you of members of your own family?
Beneatha's mother at times reminds me of my grandmother -- whom I adored. She was an older woman from the South, who had particular views ... about life, religion, how we handle ourselves as women. And as a young Northern girl, I'd push against that. When you're a teenager and you feel right, you just spray right all over the place. There's no sense of the time and knowledge gained by those who came before you. In rehearsal, we were going through one of those scenes, and my heart was breaking because I miss my grandmother so much.
She's no longer with us, I guess?
No, she passed on in 2010.
You grew up in suburban Connecticut?
Yes. The milk for my school came from a farm right down the street from my house.
I remember farms growing up on Long Island. Very few still exist.
It's interesting you say so -- there was a big cornfield down the street from my house that now has condos on it. Makes me so sad. People just can't seem to leave land and let it lie.
I'd like to talk about hair for a moment -- the play is a great snapshot of a time when hair, for black women, was a major political issue.
Actually ... my ex is African-American. And as a white guy dating a black woman, I learned about this mess of issues surrounding black women and their hair.
You got a little education, didn't ya? [She laughs.]
I did! I heard conversations I'd never heard growing up -- about "good" vs. "nappy" hair -- just like in this play ...
Yes. Absolutely. I have an aversion to the word "nappy." It's a word attributed to black people to make them feel bad about the state of their hair. Their hair is curly. And it happens to be, often, a tighter curl than European hair. But it depends on your heritage. If you're Jewish, your hair might be curled as tightly as ours. It's a word used to denigrate. And I never ... use that word.
Ah, yes. Sorry about that.
No, no. We're talking about it within the scope of the play. And I appreciate that ... it's in the play. And that Beneatha is averse to it. She doesn't accept that word or negativity about how her hair curls -- which is at the root of her being.
It's still an issue. Very few actresses can wear their hair in its natural state. Remember Viola Davis on the red carpet ... for the Oscars?
In 2012. She was considered bold, by some, for challenging what people used to say -- that hair like that wasn't ...formal.
How ... dare people say something like that. Unfortunately, it's still around. Young white women can wear their hair any way they want. But I know very talented actresses with hair in locks, and they just don't work that much. It's not considered ... attractive. So ... it's deep. It's deep.