Malcolm-Jamal Warner Tackles a Classic Sidney Poitier Role

The Root interview: The former Cosby star talks about his leading role in a new stage production of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Plus: His thoughts on black movies and socially conscious stars.

Malcolm-Jamal Warner as Dr. John Prentice, and Bethany Anne Lind as Joanna Drayton, in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater in Washington, D.C.

Teresa Wood

There’s a moment (or 10) in Todd Kreidler’s adaptation of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner when Malcolm-Jamal Warner forces you to forget all about Sidney Poitier. The thought is blasphemous, of course—heretical, even—but true nonetheless. Warner takes Dr. John Prentice, the character originated by Poitier, and makes him his own.

“I definitely watched the film again,” Warner told The Root. “But I was not trying to re-create Sidney’s approach. Watching the movie again really freed me up.” So much so that there’s another iconic character whom audiences will forget they know: Theo Huxtable.

Warner plays Prentice—the accomplished black doctor in love with a young white woman in 1967—not as a fragile artifact but as a frustrated young man desperate to be free of society’s expectations. His performance is simmering at first, then boiling, and finally explosive.

Running through Jan. 5, 2014, at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner explores the themes of race, responsibility and reality in a way that’s relevant even four decades after the original movie’s premiere. Warner talked to The Root about taking on the legacy of Poitier, heading to Broadway and the generational divide in the black community.

The Root: When did you first get the call about the show?

Malcolm-Jamal Warner: It was a couple months ago. It was one of those things that, when I heard about it, I was like, “Yeah, of course.” I love theater, and it had been about six years since I had been onstage as an actor. So I said, “Send me the script; I’ll read it,” but of course I knew I’d want to do it.

TR: So you didn’t have any reservations at all about stepping into Sidney Poitier’s shoes?

MJW: I was all in. The thing that I immediately noticed in reading the script was that we had the advantage of being in a different racial climate, as opposed to when the movie was first created. They had to tread lightly. There was only so deep they could go.

The thing that I noticed immediately was how much deeper the stage adaptation was, what we’ve done over the last month of rehearsals. David [Esbjornson], our director, was intense in going through the script page by page to see what we could pull out of it to make all the characters more well rounded than you were able to see in the movie.

TR: How is the stage version different from the big-screen version?