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.

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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.

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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?

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.

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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.

TR: Do you think the story behind Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is still relevant now, as you perform it less than a mile from a White House occupied by a biracial president?

MJW: The play goes beyond just the race issue. In the play you’ve got Joanna’s parents, who are these über-liberal people, but when they’re faced with certain issues, they realize, “Oh, we’re not as liberal as we purport to be.”

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There’s a lot of hypocrisy that we still live in today. Yes, the play is dealing specifically with race, but if you look at the time we’re in now, there are people staying up late at night trying to ensure that women don’t have the right to their bodies or that gays can’t get married.

TR: Hollywood continues to be surprised by the success of so-called black-themed films like The Best Man Holiday and Lee Daniels’ The Butler. Do you think we’re entering a new golden age of black cinema?

MJW: It’s definitely still a struggle. It’s all about the return on the investment. We can’t kid ourselves. You go back to all of the black TV shows, and what made Cosby stand out was, yes, it was a black family, but the show was about an upper-middle-class family that happened to be black. Though it sounds [like] semantics, it all comes down to execution.

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The Huxtables were very much black without having to “act black.” The Jeffersons had money, but the execution of The Jeffersons comedy was very different. Not that one is better than the other. But just like Good Times and The Jeffersons can’t represent all black people, neither can Tyler Perry or Bill Cosby. So when we talk about “black-themed” movies, let’s talk about what are the images we’re putting out there.

TR: What’s next for you?

MJW: We’re definitely looking to get the show to Broadway. That’s always been the plan. So we’re hoping we can make enough noise here in D.C. to get to New York. When the show closes here, I’ll be back in L.A. on that pilot-season grind. I’m also trying to use this window to finish this third CD—as yet untitled. It’s been six years since my last CD. I’m looking to have it out by spring.

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Helena Andrews is a contributing editor at The Root and author of Bitch Is the New Black, a memoir in essays. Follow her on Twitter.

Helena Andrews is a contributing editor at The Root and author of Bitch Is the New Black, a memoir in essays. Follow her on Twitter.