'Raisin In The Sun' Revival: A Uniquely American Story Is Back On Broadway
Denzel Washington and LaTanya Richardson Jackson have received rave reviews for their starring roles in the Broadway revival of A Raisin in the Sun. The play by Lorraine Hansberry debuted on Broadway in 1959 and was adapted to a film two years later. The current production ends its run on June 15.
"I'm in tears because it has truly been the highlight of my theatrical career," Jackson tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies.
Jackson, who was nominated for a Tony for her role, says the play needs to be constantly remade because it's in the same "canon" of such famous American plays as The Glass Menagerie and Death of a Salesman.
"It's important to me that it's done, and actually done often," she says.
It tells the story of a struggling black family living in an apartment on Chicago's South Side. Jackson plays Lena, the Younger family matriarch who is due a life insurance check that could change the family fortune.
Washington plays Walter Lee, Lena's son, who dreams of using the money to start a business and get out of his job as the chauffeur for a rich white family.
Washington, who has won two Academy Awards, for Glory and Training Day, is no stranger to the stage; he won a Tony for his leading role in the August Wilson play Fences. He says one of the greatest joys of the stage is you never know what can happen on any given night.
"It's like music, you have the sheet music, but then you play it and there's different rhythms to it — there's different things you hear — there's things you hear for the first time," he says. "The mistakes are the best part, sometimes."
On a shared history
Denzel Washington: We were all on slave ships and worked on plantations. ... That's my history, that's the history of every African-American I know. My mother was born in Camilla, Ga.; my father was born in Virginia. My father was a farmer; his father was a farmer; his father was a slave.
On this version of the play being funnier than the 1959 film
Denzel Washington: I didn't know it was funny until the first audience. Who knew? It wasn't like we were working or trying to be funny. Again, it's the times we live in now. Maybe that was no laughing matter, then, in 1959. ... It's different, culturally, racially. Sometimes when there's a predominantly white audience, sometimes there's not as much laughter because they're not sure if they're supposed to, you know? But it can be one person or a couple of people that get it going.
On what they drew on to create their characters
LaTanya Richardson Jackson: I remember my grandparents especially, if we were in a mix of people where there were members [of] white society and the white culture, she was always saying, 'Just sit up and look nice. Be nice and be quiet.' There was just certain things, certain protocol that you were just asked to adhere to ... because you were always representing the race, and the race had an image problem. ... The race had an image problem because everyone was concerned with all of the stereotypes of how we were perceived, so everyone I knew was trying to undo that perception of loud, raggedy, whatever, dirty, whatever. My family was in a constant hunt to undo all of that, and sometimes they used to even tell us, "If you can't put the sentence together correctly, keep your mouth shut."
On how each night's performance is different
Denzel Washington: It's never the same. You don't know what it is. One thing can throw you and propel you — anything — you don't know what it is. You can trip right before you come onstage and that could inform the whole scene. Last night — or one of those nights — Anika [Noni Rose] ... was spraying the roach spray stuff, and it spilled, so when I came out, the floor was wet and I gotta come running across [the stage], and now I'm aware of the floor, and it actually threw me, and I almost forgot a line because I'm thinking about the floor. So it's live, and it keeps going. There ain't no stopping.
On the play nearing the end of its run
LaTanya Richardson Jackson: This has taken me into the stratosphere in terms of what was possible in terms of what gets done onstage. This cast for me, I'm like ... 'Look at her do that! Watch that! Watch him!' I see stuff and I just — sometimes that's why I get lost sometimes — because I'm watching.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. Our guests today are actors Denzel Washington and LaTanya Richardson-Jackson, who've gotten rave reviews for their starring roles in the Broadway revival of the influential play "A Raisin In The Sun."
Denzel Washington's been nominated for four Academy Awards and has won twice for "Glory" and "Training Day." Among his other films are "Malcolm X", "Philadelphia," "American Gangster" and "Flight." He also won a Tony award in 2010 for his leading role in the August Wilson play "Fences."
LaTanya Richardson-Jackson has been appearing onstage, screen and television for more than 30 years. She received a Tony nomination for best actress for her role in "A Raisin In The Sun." She's married to fellow actor Samuel L. Jackson.
"A Raisin In The Sun" debuted on Broadway in 1959 and was adapted to film two years later. It tells the story of the Youngers, a struggling black family living in an apartment on Chicago's South side. The family's fortunes could change with the arrival of a life insurance check on its way to the family's matriarch, Lena, played by Richardson-Jackson. But her son, Walter Lee, dreams of using the money to start a business and get out of his job as a chauffeur. Denzel Washington is Walter Lee, the role played by Sidney Poitier in the original Broadway production and the 1961 film. This production has received a total of five Tony nominations, including one for best revival of a play.
DAVIES: Denzel Washington, LaTanya Richardson-Jackson, welcome to FRESH AIR. This play debuted in 1959. What did it mean to each of you? I mean the play itself.
DENZEL WASHINGTON: Actually, I had never seen the play, and I saw a production maybe 10 years ago when they did it on Broadway. But I actually had never seen - well, I obviously didn't see the original - but I hadn't seen the film either. You know, Lorraine Hansberry - I mean, I've been very blessed to get to interpret two great playwrights - African-American playwrights. I mean, Hansberry and August Wilson. So it was a real - it is a real pleasure and an honor to speak her words.
DAVIES: Yeah. Mrs. Richardson-Jackson any - did it mean anything to you coming in?
LATANYA RICHARDSON-JACKSON: This is a real important play in the canon of American plays, and it's important that we are always mindful that Lorraine Hansberry's play - that "A Raisin In The Sun," sits in that canon with, you know, "The Glass Menagerie" or "Death Of A Salesman." It's important to me that it's done and actually done often.
DAVIES: Let's hear a clip from the play. This is early on in the play, and you, Denzel Washington, you play...
WASHINGTON: OK, I'm not going to listen to it 'cause I don't like to hear it.
DAVIES: Really, why is that?
WASHINGTON: No, 'cause I don't like hearing my own voice.
DAVIES: Well, I apologize for that. The rest of us kind of like it.
WASHINGTON: OK, well, you listen to it and then...
RICHARDSON-JACKSON: And I'll tell him when, OK - and then I'll tell him when to come back.
DAVIES: OK. This is our guest, Denzel Washington, playing Walter Lee Younger. This is a point early in the play where he is - Denzel Washington, you're having breakfast with your wife Ruth, who's played by Sophie Okonedo. And the play - the plot revolves around this family that's living together in this Chicago apartment, and they're expecting a $10,000 insurance payment that the matriarch will get because her husband has died. And Denzel's character, Walter Lee, has big plans to start a business. His wife - not so excited about it. Let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE FROM PLAY, "A RAISIN IN THE SUN")
SOPHIE OKONEDO: (As Ruth) Walter, leave me alone. Eat your eggs. T hey're going to get cold.
WASHINGTON: (As Walter Lee) Man say, I got me a dream. Woman say, eat your egg. Man say, I got to take hold of this here world baby. Woman say, eat your eggs and go to work. Man say, I got to change my life. I'm choking to death. Woman say, your eggs is getting cold.
OKONEDO: (As Ruth) Walter, that ain't none of our money.
WASHINGTON: (As Walter Lee) This morning I'm in the mirror, in the bathroom, I'm thinking - I'm 40 years old, I've been married 11 years and I've got a boy who sleeps on the living room couch. And all I got to give him is nothing, nothing but stories about how rich white people live.
OKONEDO: (As Ruth) Eat your eggs, Walter.
WASHINGTON: (As Walter Lee) Damn my eggs. Damn all the eggs there ever was.
DAVIES: And that's our guest, Denzel Washington, and Sophie Okonedo in the Broadway production of "A Raisin In The Sun." Sophie Okonedo, who plays your wife, said that this play, by Lorraine Hansberry, is so deep that the more she reads it, the more she finds in it. You keep digging and digging. She says there's no bottom to it. Did you find that as you performed it?
WASHINGTON: Well, I think that's - you know, that's one of the great parts of live theater. You know, there is something new every night. And you know it's like music. You have the sheet music, but then you play it and there's different rhythms to it. There's different things you hear. There's things you for this first time, or, you know, the mistakes are the best part sometimes, too. So...
DAVIES: Your character is a man who has a lot of dreams. And one of the things he clearly talks about from time to time is seeing, you know, white executives in restaurants, you know, making deals...
DAVIES: ...And having access to a life that he doesn't. And I wonder if that's something that you experienced as a young man or your father?
WASHINGTON: No. Not like this, I guess, because he's a limo driver and drove around a very wealthy - I guess, wealthy man - he had a certain - he could see it, but he's seeing it from the car. He's opening doors. He's not sitting in there having dinner. You know, it's a part of what he doesn't understand. As he explains to his mother, they're just sitting there, turning deals worth millions of dollars. As he says, well, no, they're not just sitting there turning deals. You know, he's not up in the office with them when they're doing the grunt work. So that's the gap that he doesn't understand.
It isn't that easy, and as he gets an opportunity, he, you know, gets in bed with the wrong person. He doesn't understand business. He thinks he does because he drives around people who do. For myself, you know, I wasn't around a lot of rich, white folks as a kid. I mean, no. That's not true, totally. I went to private school in high school. So, you know, I got real close to them, and I realized, oh, they had a lot of dirty laundry, too - or the kids of rich, white folks. So it wasn't that big a gap for me because I was living with the people, and we got to know each other. And we became good friends, and, you know, we found out how much we were alike.
DAVIES: Well, Latanya Richardson-Jackson, I hope you'll let us play a clip of your performance. This is one that we have.
RICHARDSON-JACKSON: I don't care.
DAVIES: This is a moment where the $10,000 insurance payment - you're the matriarch of the family - and this is where this $10,000 insurance payment from your late husband has arrived and there are - you know, the family is divided over what is to be done with it. Your son, played by Denzel Washington, has plans to start a business. You have a daughter who has hopes to go to medical school. And at this moment, you're sitting down. And you speak to your grandson, Travis, played by Bryce Clyde Jenkins. Let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "A RAISIN IN THE SUN")
RICHARDSON-JACKSON: (As Lena) I want him to be the first one to hear. Come here Travis.
RICHARDSON-JACKSON: (As Lena) Travis, you know that money we got in the mail this morning?
BRYCE CLYDE JENKINS: (As Travis) Yes, ma'am.
RICHARDSON-JACKSON: (As Lena) You know what you're grandmama go on and done with that money?
JENKINS: (As Travis) I don't know, grandmama.
RICHARDSON-JACKSON: (As Lena) She went, and she went bought you a house. You glad about the house? It's going to be yours when you get to be a man.
JENKINS: (As Travis) Yes, ma'am. I always wanted to live in a house.
RICHARDSON-JACKSON: (As Lena) Give me some sugar now. And when you say your prayers tonight, you thank God and your grandfather 'cause he the one who give it to you in his way.
DAVIES: And that's our guest, LaTanya Richardson-Jackson who was appearing...
RICHARDSON-JACKSON: Do you have another clip of that? I wasn't very intrigued by that reading.
DAVIES: You said you weren't intrigued by that reading?
RICHARDSON-JACKSON: No, I didn't quite like it.
DAVIES: What was wrong with it?
RICHARDSON-JACKSON: I was just sitting here listening to it, saying it - as I say, well, that didn't have a lot of melody in it.
WASHINGTON: See, that's why I don't - that's why I don't like to listen.
DAVIES: Now, you see, I'm hearing a compelling performance, but you're hearing every little subtlety that didn't go as...
DAVIES: And the performance grows overtime I guess, right?
RICHARDSON-JACKSON: Yes, it does. Thank God for that.
DAVIES: Well, tell us a little about this character. I mean, she's, you know, the matriarch of the family.
RICHARDSON-JACKSON: For Lena, you know, she's a Southern woman, she's still a Southern woman who has come North, with her husband, presumably seeking a better life. And they end up - it's that conundrum - you end up in the North with a job working, but you lose the land, you know. In the South, you've got the land. And somehow, you know, coming from sharecroppers and, you know, her family situation on farms and whatever - it's a vast place that she comes from to be sort of pushed into this hole, this rathole, that she ends up in.
So it's the frustration with that that she has inside - built up inside of her, as well as what Walter Lee has built up inside of him. But somehow she makes a better resignation about it because she's trying - fighting for the survival of her children and, you know, her family and her husband.
DAVIES: And the kids. And the kids have aspirations, maybe, that she didn't have. They take for granted a roof on her head and enough to eat and want bigger things.
RICHARDSON-JACKSON: I think that she - if there was a dream - she talks about her dream. Her dream was to fix up a house and to have a garden - to fix it up and have a garden. Those were her dreams. These other things, these lofty ideas of running businesses and, you know, being a doctor, you know, a nurse or a teacher, maybe - but a doctor for Beneatha, is something that she can't even fathom. She just - you know, it's too far in the world - in a worldview for her to even access.
DAVIES: You're from the South. You're from Georgia, is that right?
RICHARDSON-JACKSON: I'm from Atlanta. Yes, I am.
DAVIES: And you're of course of a very different generation than this woman. I mean, you sort of came of age in the '60s, right?
RICHARDSON-JACKSON: Right. In the '60s and the '70s. Yeah, I did. I came of age in it, but I remember it. I remember my grandparents and my mother and my aunts. I remember these women very well, which is, you know, the thing that I've try to infuse into Lena's character. I remember them and their mannerisms. I remember their hand movements, you know what I mean? I remember them with their handkerchiefs.
DAVIES: Right, and the dialect is distinctly different, I think, than the other characters - yours.
RICHARDSON-JACKSON: Totally, but - oh, no, it's totally different. You know, they are of the North. They are above the Dixon line. I'm below it. So...
DAVIES: Denzel Washington, did you have family that came up from the South that, I don't know, evoked - that resonated here?
WASHINGTON: Old African-Americans, you know, came up from the South either from the West Indies or through the South, you know. We were all on slave ships and worked on plantations. And that's my - I'm sure that's LaTanya's history. That's my history. That's the history of every African-American I know. My mother was born in Camilla, Georgia. My father was born in Virginia. My father was a farmer. His father was a farmer. His father was a slave.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Denzel Washington and LaTanya Richardson-Jackson. They're starring in the Broadway revival of the play "A Raisin In The Sun." We'll continue after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Denzel Washington and LaTanya Richardson-Jackson. They both star in the current Broadway production of, "The Raisin In The Sun." When I watched the film, "The Raisin In The Sun," - I mean, it's impressive. It's dramatic. It's not especially funny. The play is very funny. Did you guys do things to bring out the comedy in it? Or is that a matter of just having a live audience in front of you?
RICHARDSON-JACKSON: I think it's a more natural rendition of the play - that the archetypes that had to be played in the '50s - we've relaxed. We don't have to be those people now. We don't have to be the best look - you know what I mean, the best look? We don't have to always, you know - black people had an image issue. So a lot of it had to do - when the play was done before and when the film was done - I think had to do with the image that was being portrayed in a - in a different kind of way. We are looking at this play, I think - Kenny Leon, the director, says that he's trying to make an intimate play out of a huge masterwork. And the only way that you can do that is to humanize the characters and sort of lift that onus of archetype off of them, where everything is played in such a hearty, lifted way.
DAVIES: So do you mean, like...
RICHARDSON-JACKSON: An affected manner is not affected that way. You see what really, possibly went on. They would have killed each other if they had been in there in a space that small. You know what I mean? It would have been more fighting than was going on.
DAVIES: Tiny apartment - sharing a bathroom with your neighbors.
DAVIES: Right, yeah. So you're saying...
WASHINGTON: Yeah, I didn't know it was funny until the first audience.
RICHARDSON-JACKSON: Not that funny.
WASHINGTON: Yeah - who knew? It wasn't like we were working - we were trying to be funny. You know, people - and, you know, again, it's a difference - times we live in now. Maybe that was no laughing matter then, in 1959. And now, there's - maybe the audience comes to it with a different...And it's different culturally, racially. Sometimes, when there's a predominantly white audience, sometimes there's not as much laughter 'cause they're not sure if they're supposed to - you know? But it can be one person or a couple of people that get it going, and then it -
RICHARDSON-JACKSON: Yeah. I mean, they laugh in places, sometimes, that we're, like, say - they're laughing?
DAVIES: Well, LaTanya, you were saying a moment ago - were you saying that - you know - 40 years ago, to present, kind of, an acceptable image of middle-class blacks to mainstream culture, they had to, kind of, tighten it up and be serious in a way that you don't have to now?
RICHARDSON-JACKSON: Well, that's my assessment of it. That's how I see it because it's - I remember my grandparents, especially. If we were in a mix of people where there were members in white society and the white culture - she was always saying, just sit up and, you know - look nice. Be nice and be quiet. You know, there was just certain things...
WASHINGTON: (Laughing) That's right. I remember that.
RICHARDSON-JACKSON: There were certain things that, you know - certain protocol that you were just asked to adhere to that made it -you know, because you were - you were always representing the race. And the race had an image problem - that's what I'm saying. The race had an image problem because everyone was concerned with all of the stereotypes of how we were perceived. So everyone I knew was trying to undo that perception of loud, you know - raggedy, whatever - dirty - whatever. My family was in a constant hunt to undo all of that. And sometimes, they - you know, they used to even tell us, if you can't put the sentence together correctly, keep your mouth shut. Shut up. So - it's not like that now, though.
DAVIES: Right. Well, you know, this play was known for bringing African American audiences to the theater when it opened - and still is. Are you aware of that on stage - that it's a different kind of audience?
RICHARDSON-JACKSON: I think that's what Denzel was just saying. Yeah, we're aware.
WASHINGTON: What do you mean, a different kind audience?
WASHINGTON: (Laughing) Anybody that can afford to come, can come.
RICHARDSON-JACKSON: No. Are you aware, when - that the audience - it's like - when there are more black people, say, than white people.
DAVIES: That's what I'm saying.
WASHINGTON: Oh. Well, I don't - I don't look out there, so no. No, I'm not...
DAVIES: No. And you've got stage lights on you, but I'm just wondering...
DAVIES: If there's a different feeling in the response that you're getting? Yeah.
WASHINGTON: I would have to look to know that it was a different...No, I don't know. I mean, no. I mean - 'cause I don't look out there. I mean, unless somebody actually spoke - maybe I could, you know - I could say, oh that's a - or think - but I'm not even thinking like that, either. I'm not tuned in to what - who's what color and what they might be saying, or anything like that.
RICHARDSON-JACKSON: You know, I'm the totally unorthodox side of all of that 'cause I'm looking.
RICHARDSON-JACKSON: And I can tell you that there's a difference. And, you know - and we even have what I call the church crowd. And I was like, oh we got the church crowd today.
WASHINGTON: Yeah. Well, we know certain days - yeah, matinee - Sunday matinee, you know, is going to be...Or if you come to work and you see busses out front, you know - you might know that it's going to be a bit different.
DAVIES: And what's the church crowd like?
RICHARDSON-JACKSON: Loud but fun, you know what I mean? They enjoy the play. They get absorbed into who the characters are. You know what I mean? They - they just go with the story. And they are invested. It's like, you know - even one - if Walter Lee is doing something, you can hear them say, oh, Walter Lee.
RICHARDSON-JACKSON: (Laughing) You notice?
DAVIES: Well, I was there...
WASHINGTON: Sometimes you hear, oh, Denzel.
RICHARDSON-JACKSON: Yeah. That's when they're not, like, totally on point.
DAVIES: You know, this production has earned a lot of Tony nominations. You, Denzel Washington, did not get one. But Ben Brantley wrote in The New York Times a piece suggesting that - that maybe you didn't get one because you kept your ego in check. And he meant this in a complementary way - said you, kind of, kept the - I think the phrase was, the blistering and bluster, to a minimum. Would you agree? Were you conscious of that?
WASHINGTON: I didn't see the article, but I didn't - you mean, like - like scene stealing or something? Or - when I'll go downstage and - or upstage other people, or some - I don't - I don't operate like that.
RICHARDSON-JACKSON: I think that he was talking about how stars come to Broadway and, immediately, they carve a space for themselves in whatever scene and say, I'm the star and I'm here, and that he didn't do that. But he never does that.
WASHINGTON: No. I'm not - I'm not wired that way. And, you know, I was acting on the stage long before I was doing movies. So, you know, it's how I was trained, where I was trained and how I started. And it's just - for me, it's coming back home, you know. I'm just a popular actor. I don't walk around and say, hey. I'm a movie star.
RICHARDSON-JACKSON: I'm a movie star.
WASHINGTON: I'm a movie star. I don't know what that - what is that occupation?
RICHARDSON-JACKSON: Let me throw my scarf.
WASHINGTON: (Laughing) Yeah. Let me throw my scarf. Get in my Ferrari, and...
RICHARDSON-JACKSON: Oh no. Don't say that.
WASHINGTON: Well, I might get in my Ferrari. No, I don't have a Ferrari, but, you know.
WASHINGTON: Aston Martin.
RICHARDSON-JACKSON: Let me get in my blue Aston Martin.
DAVIES: Well, and we should note that Denzel Washington did win a Tony in 2010, for "Fences."
RICHARDSON-JACKSON: No, he's won them all.
DAVIES: Right. There aren't many things he has not won.
RICHARDSON-JACKSON: Right. He's won them all.
DAVIES: LaTanya Richardson..
WASHINGTON: I got to do - I got to do an album. I've got to sing next.
RICHARDSON-JACKSON: No, we're going to miss that.
WASHINGTON: Give me a Grammy. No, we're going to miss that.
RICHARDSON-JACKSON: (Laughing)Miss that. Miss that Grammy.
WASHINGTON: Yeah. One must know one's limitations.
DAVIES: The Tony, the Oscar or the Grammy- we'll be looking forward to that. Good.
WASHINGTON: Spoken word.
DAVIES: Denzel Washington and LaTanya Richardson-Jackson star in the Broadway revival of, "Raisin In The Sun," which runs through June 15th. They'll be back in the second of the show. I'm Dave Davies and this is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. Our guests today are actors Denzel Washington and LaTanya Richardson-Jackson, who're starring in the Broadway revival of "A Raisin In The Sun." The tape - the play debuted in 1959 and was adapted to film two years later. Denzel Washington has the role played by Sidney Poitier in the stage and screen versions of the work. LaTanya Richardson-Jackson has been nominated for a Tony for her performance.
DAVIES: LaTanya Richardson, now this role was originally going to be played by I think by Diahann Carroll and then she left and you came in, I guess about a month before opening. I don't know how much rehearsing had been done before that, but did that present...
WASHINGTON: Two weeks.
DAVIES: Yeah. Did that present any charges to either of you?
RICHARDSON-JACKSON: It presented a lot of challenges to me because I had to jump in and learn all those lines. You know, I was coming from behind, I didn't have any prep time, so, yeah it was challenging. It was challenging for a while, you know, even challenging during the previews because I felt that I was rehearsing during the play or, you know, trying to find Lena. You know, when you know that you're going to do something, you do a certain amount of prep work in trying to dig in and sort of bring the person, that character to life. So I didn't get an opportunity to do that, but when I tell you I had the prayers and help of many and every person in that cast was, like, standing there looking at me, like, come on, come on, we can do this, you know. So I'm not complaining at all, it was just, it was difficult, but so much in life is.
DAVIES: LaTanya Richardson-Jackson you are married to Samuel L. Jackson, and known for having one of the most durable Hollywood marriages. You met where - in college?
RICHARDSON-JACKSON: Yes, we did. We met in college. He attended Morehouse College, I'm a graduate of Spelman College in Atlanta, in the Atlanta University complex.
DAVIES: And you were both actors then or did you get him into it?
RICHARDSON-JACKSON: You know what - he got himself into because he was trying to get a grade out of a speech class, instead of going to speech class, he didn't want to do a speech and the director told him, well, if you come, then you're in the play 'cause he never had enough guys to do the plays. He said if you do the play then you don't have to do the speech. You know, so that's how he got involved. He was a marine biologist. He was trying to go and swim with the fish or something. He was, you know, he just got interested. He was always along the way because his aunt who taught school in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where he was from, put him in plays because he could learn lines and stuff, you know, but he had no design on it, until later.
DAVIES: And so you both, I gather, anticipated acting careers.
RICHARDSON-JACKSON: No, I had an acting career. I had been at Spelman since I was 14 years old.
WASHINGTON: You had a career?
RICHARDSON-JACKSON: I had a career.
WASHINGTON: Were you working as a young actress?
RICHARDSON-JACKSON: I was in it. I was in it in Georgia with a woman by the name - whose just passed away in January - Georgia Allen - at 96 years old. Took me to Spelman College when I was 14 years old to join the children's theater there. So I was there from the time I was 14 until, you know, forever. And I won an award in Georgia, it was the first year that the theater awards in Georgia, Georgia Theater Festival, had been integrated. That must of been 1967, '66, '67. And I won the best supporting actress award, so, I was really like, oh, no, I'm really an actress.
DAVIES: Well, I mean, it's apparent you've got some chops. I mean, you've accomplished some things. You - when you had your daughter Zoe, I gather, you kind of put your career on hold to hang a home a lot more, right?
RICHARDSON-JACKSON: No I didn't kind of, I did.
RICHARDSON-JACKSON: I was like hang them, do what you can, I cut my toe in it, you know, a little bit. I got to do some work in the summers when she wasn't in school. But, you know, Sam and I both came from broken homes as it was, well, fatherless homes, both being raised by our grandparents, so we had grandfathers. You know, for a long time I thought that fathers were unnecessary, but you had to have a grandfather. But after that, being the revolutionaries that we thought we were, we said, you know, the most revolutionary thing we think we can do, is for a black family to stay together. So whatever it takes that's going to be our challenge. That's going to be our fight, so soldier on. And that's what we've done. So, yeah, Miss. Zoe is a producer now, at Top Chef.
DAVIES: She's what 20, in her late 20s, right?
RICHARDSON-JACKSON: I'm not saying, you know, a woman never reveals her age.
RICHARDSON-JACKSON: She'll never come at me, saying why were you on the radio saying how old I was?
DAVIES: Well, you know, while you were kind of working intermittently and raising your daughter, I mean, Samuel becomes a big star. And I wondered what kind of challenges that presented in the relationship?
RICHARDSON-JACKSON: You mean what kind does it still present now, when he's still in New York...
DAVIES: That too I suppose.
RICHARDSON-JACKSON: And wondering what the dinner is and I have to go to work? It's those kind of challenges. You know, I'm southern, so there's still something there for me about the concern of the wife and the mother for the family in terms of how we get through our day, eating, living, clothed and I just take that on. And I created - help create that space, so I'm trying to honor it and be responsible for it. So it's a challenge when he's gone. But it's also a challenge when he's there. So it's a little - it's lot, you know. You miss him, and then you say I'm working too. But I'll get it done, no worries, no worries, keep doing whatever it is you're doing. He gets a very free space to create, I don't.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Denzel Washington and LaTanya Richardson-Jackson. They both star in the Broadway production of "Raisin In The Sun". We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR and if you're just joining us, we're speaking with actors Denzel Washington and LaTanya Richardson-Jackson. They both star in the current Broadway production of "Raisin In The Sun". We have a few minutes left, Denzel Washington, and I wanted to talk a little bit about "Flight," the film that you won an Oscar nomination for in the leading role last year. This is a film where you're a pilot with a serious drinking problem and it begins with one of the hairiest scenes you'll ever encounter in a film, where there's in-air emergency that leads to a crash landing and you're the pilot. You want to tell us a little about how you prepared for the role?
WASHINGTON: I just drank every night.
WASHINGTON: No, actually I got an opportunity to work with Delta Airlines, in their flight simulators. The screenplay, I don't think I'm out of line saying this, the screenwriter's a gentleman who's a recovering alcoholic, so he knows about it. The director as well - as being a pilot and a great director.
DAVIES: Bob Zemeckise is the director and John Gatins the screenwriter.
WASHINGTON: And they knew what they were talking about. And it was, you know, there's an old saying, if ain't on the page, it ain't on the stage. So it was on the page, and it was a role that, you know, you just, especially in film, you just don't come across really great scripts and this was one of them. So it was something I had to do.
DAVIES: I want to play one scene from the film "Flight." And in this film, you do some heroic things in the air when the plane starts to fall apart and manage to execute a crash landing in which most of the occupants of the plane survive. However you were also kind of drunk and high on cocaine at the time and this is going to be a problem when the NTSB, the National Transportation Safety Board, gets into an investigation. And in the scene we're about to hear, you're at a funeral for one of the members of the crew who did not survive and you approach a flight attendant who you've known for many years and you want to talk to her about what she might tell the investigators about your condition the day of the accident. The flight attendant is played by Tamara Tunie. Let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FLIGHT")
WASHINGTON: (As William Whitaker) Listen, Margaret, you know I'm in the middle of this investigation and NTSB is investigating the crash.
TAMARA TUNIE: (As Margaret Thomason) Yeah, I'm going to talk to them next week.
WASHINGTON: (As William Whitaker) Yeah, I'm a little nervous because I was out the night before the crash, at dinner.
TUNIE: (As Margaret Thomason): Yeah, with Trina.
WASHINGTON: (As William Whitaker) Right. And I had two glasses of wine and they're probably going to ask you about my condition that morning or whether you thought I had anything to drink. What?
TUNIE: (As Margaret Thomason): I've known you 11 years, Whip.
WASHINGTON: (As William Whitaker) Right.
TUNIE: (As Margaret Thomason) You're going to tell me that you and Trina went to dinner and you had two glasses of wine? Sounds like a nice restaurant, now which one was it?
WASHINGTON: (As William Whitaker) You have to say that it was an ordinary day, Margaret. I mean it was an ordinary day, you know me, I was in shape to fly. You have a problem saying that?
TUNIE: (As Margaret Thomason) It's a lie ,Whip. It's a lie. Trina told me you two hadn't been to sleep.
WASHINGTON: (As William Whitaker) Well, my lack of sleep had nothing to do with that plane falling apart Margaret. I'm just trying to get this thing straightened out. You think any other pilot could have landed that plane and saved more lives?
TUNIE: (As Margaret Thomason) I didn't say that, Whip. I can't imagine another pilot doing it.
WASHINGTON: (As William Whitaker) Well, imagine your son Trevor in this church looking at you in that box or my son visiting me in prison for the next four years.
TUNIE: (As Margaret Thomason) Please, enough. Enough, Whip. Don't you think we've all had enough?
WASHINGTON: (As William Whitaker) I need this, Margaret.
DAVIES: And that's our guest Denzel Washington in the film "Flight." The flight attendant there played by Tamara Tunie. This guy is such a fascinating character. I mean, actors love characters that are complex and conflicted, this guy's a bona fide hero, but he's also - how would you describe his flaws?
WASHINGTON: Well, you know, he's got a serious disease and he's a professional liar and he's damaged goods. He's in a lot of pain, but he's also great at what he does, and he has to, finally ultimately face his demons as we all do. And in an honest way, and you know, I always found it interesting - not interesting because I made sure to do this. There's a turn in it, he doesn't actually turn in the film until he asks for Gods help. He's on the stand and says God help me, the prosecutor or wherever, Melissa Leo, says what did you say 'cause he kind of mumbles it, and he says God help me. And that's the beginning of the rest of his life. And God does help him and he has to pay the price for the damage he's done. And in fact I remember talking with the producers and the director, and I was like I think it should be, he should get more time in prison, I thought that we kind of let him off the hook only giving him five years. He should have done 20 years.
DAVIES: You know, that's interesting that you say that because...
WASHINGTON: Or more.
DAVIES: That is a powerful moment in the film near the end, where he's managed to cover up most of his, you know, his drinking and the danger that he put people in and is about to get away with, and somehow can't. And, you know, when you were last on our program, you were talking about the film "Training Day" where you play this rogue cop. And you told Terry Gross it was really important to you that he get - that justice be served. And that meant that he not only get killed, but he be rejected and humiliated by his community. And I was wondering if you felt strongly that this guy had to be held accountable in a way?
WASHINGTON: The wages of sin is death and that's what I wrote on the cover of the script on "Training Day." And, you know, it's not coincidental. I mean, I do this on purpose. I look for that in a role and I turn it into that even if it's not even on the page. I did it in "Training Day" and that's what it was for me. That's the reason I wanted to do it. Same thing with "Flight," it's not - it's where he gets to. He has to pay for what he does, but there's an arc to the character, you know, like in this play or in any good screenplay or play - or character - you're looking for the ark of the character. In "American Gangster," he ends up a lonely man with a box with his belongings in it, stepping out in a $2 suit in front of a penitentiary. So it wasn't a movie about glorifying drug dealing, it was a movie about the price you have to pay for doing that.
DAVIES: You know, the other thing that occurred to me as I watched your performance is there are a lot of scenes where your character has been drinking quite a bit, but he's a functioning alcoholic and he's used to covering it up. And I wonder how you play somebody who's, you know, impaired but pretty good at hiding it.
WASHINGTON: Well, I think what you, I don't know where I learned that from, from acting or from life experiences, you don't play drunk, you try to be sober. You're not acting drunk, you are drunk. So you're actually trying to be sober, you know, unless you're comatose.
DAVIES: Right, but you're not drunk. (Laughing)
WASHINGTON: Well, that's, you know, what I do. I can't give you the how I do it because I don't know. I saw a play called "Ruin" and Felicia, not Felia (ph) Folia was in a...
WASHINGTON: Folia, Folia. (ph) But there was a kid in it, and all he did was rock back on his heals, I said, man, the way you did was great, what were you doing? He said I just kept sitting back on my heels, but, like, until I was almost going to tip over then I had to lean forward to balance off my feet. And I was like, I started doing that and I was like, oh. So even now doing the play - so I stole this from you, I forgot his name, the actor - whenever I'm standing still or if I need to remind myself in the scene in "Raisin In The Sun," I'll just - especially if I'm standing still, I'll just get back on my heels again and it's just like a balance thing. So sometimes it's just something you get a hold of something very technical, you know, whatever handle you use to get in.
RICHARDSON-JACKSON: You're also very observant though.
WASHINGTON: Well yeah, you've got to - yeah, that helps.
DAVIES: You know, most of us...
WASHINGTON: Like, I was watching mom last night walking, I hate to talk about this 'cause you don't want to make people self conscious...
DAVIES: When you say mom, you're talking about your...
WASHINGTON: Moma, LaTanya - rocking back and forth, going to that room to get that money. I said, look, she putting extra on it, just going to make me feel bad. All of a sudden she's 20 years extra older, like, all right I'm going to give you this money.
RICHARDSON-JACKSON: My feet were hurting.
WASHINGTON: Is that what it was, your feet were just hurting?
RICHARDSON-JACKSON: I just came from work, that's what I love about doing plays, though, 'cause I get it where I - you get it where you find it. It's like overnight, I'm tired
WASHINGTON: Right, yeah.
RICHARDSON-JACKSON: I been to work.
WASHINGTON: It's never the same. You don't know what it is. One thing can throw you and propel you, anything. You don't know what it is. You know, you can trip right before you come on stage, and that could inform the whole scene, last night or whatever - one of those nights the girls - I always call her Bonita (ph), Anika, was spraying the roach spray stuff and it spilled. So when I came out, the floor was wet and I got to come running across to snatch the check, to look at the check. So, now, I'm aware of the floor. And it actually threw me a little bit, and a line, I almost forgot a line because I'm thinking about the floor. So that's - you know, it's live, and it keeps going. There ain't no stopping.
DAVIES: This production of "Raisin In The Sun" is going to be ending in a few weeks. How do you feel about it coming to an end?
RICHARDSON-JACKSON: I'm in tears. I can tell you now, every day, I don't even like for him to tell me how many days it is.
WASHINGTON: How many shows, I got to count.
RICHARDSON-JACKSON: How many shows are left.
WASHINGTON: You don't want to know.
RICHARDSON-JACKSON: I'm in tears because it has truly been the highlight of my theatrical career.
RICHARDSON-JACKSON: I thought "For Colored Girls" or "Spell" was, but this has taken me into the stratosphere of what was possible in terms of what gets done on stage.
RICHARDSON-JACKSON: This cast for me, I'm like, God dog, look at her do that, watch that, watch him. I see stuff and I just sometimes, that's why I get lost sometimes 'cause I'm watching.
WASHINGTON: You kill me. LaTanya will come up with some ad libs sometimes.
WASHINGTON: She'll just say anything.
RICHARDSON-JACKSON: It's, like, keep it moving.
DAVIES: Well, Denzel Washington, LaTanya Richardson-Jackson, congratulations on the play, it's terrific. And thank you so much for joining us.
RICHARDSON-JACKSON: Thank you for coming, Dave.
WASHINGTON: Thank you.
RICHARDSON-JACKSON: Thanks for having us.
DAVIES: Denzel Washington and LaTanya Richardson-Jackson star in the Broadway revival of "A Raisin In The Sun," which has been nominated for five Tony Awards. It runs through June 15. Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews the second album from singer-songwriter John Fulbright. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.