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

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

MJW: There’s a real emotional arc my character, John, has in the play that you don’t see in the movie. In the play you get that. You get John’s frustration from the beginning of Act 1. They plant the seed that he’s also keeping his relationship with Joanna a secret from his parents, and what we see as the play unfolds is that no matter how much John achieves, it’s never enough for his father, and that has a profound effect on any offspring. We got to touch upon that, and you don’t really get that in the movie.

TR: How did you prepare for the role?

MJW: I definitely watched the film again. But I was not trying to re-create Sidney’s approach. Watching the movie again really freed me up. Here’s an opportunity to take a different approach and put my own spin on it based on my growing up.

When this project came along, it came at a really good time in my life and allowed me to bring some of the perspective of what I know about the ’60s through just growing up. I’ve grown up being quite familiar with this time period. When I would go to Chicago on my summer vacation, my father would make me read books and write him a report. I read Richard Wright, Mary McLeod Bethune, Marian Wright Edelman. He made sure I had a really good sense of our history. I was named after Malcolm X and Ahmad Jamal.

TR: Speaking of mixing history with artistry, what are your thoughts on the spat between Harry Belafonte and rapper Jay Z? Should artists be more socially conscious?

MJW: It’s an individual choice. It really depends on where your social [consciousness] is, and a lot of that depends on how you were raised and what values are instilled in you. We talk about the generational divide, and there is a certain disconnect that I think our generation has with what our journey was. No matter how disrespected you may have felt by Harry Belafonte, that’s not a man you call a “boy.” There’s a certain amount of respect that we don’t have for the people who have come before us and make our path possible.

TR: Where do you think that disconnect comes from?

MJW: For the people who were in the struggle, once there was a certain level of progress achieved somewhere along the way, there was a work ethic and sense of pride that got lost. As a parent, you work so that your children don’t have to fight the same battles, but at the same time you forget to teach them.

When Mr. Cosby got flak, so many people lost the point of his message. His whole message was,‘‘Where are the parents? Who is teaching the young kids?” But here’s a man that has been very active in the movement without being a mouthpiece. He’s a perfect example of the grumpy grandfather looking at these young whippersnappers. But to his point, there was a lot that got lost in raising the next generation.