Sophie Okonedo had never read Lorraine Hansberry's seminal American drama A Raisin in the Sun when she was offered the part of Ruth Younger in the play's latest revival. That's no surprise, though, since Okonedo, despite offering a very believable American accent, is British. After looking through the text, she was compelled to take on the role. She is currently making both her U.S. stage and Broadway debut, alongside Denzel Washington, in Kenny Leon's Broadway revival at the Barrymore Theatre.
TheaterMania chatted with the Academy Award nominee (for Hotel Rwanda) about her childhood dream come true, as well as about film and stage titan Denzel Washington and Hansberry's play as both ahead of its time and shockingly on-point with society today.
Congratulations on your Broadway debut! How did this role come about?
I got a call from [producer] Scott Rudin to meet with [director] Kenny Leon. He'd seen me in a show in London. So I met with him and Kenny, had lunch, and then got offered the part. That was ten months ago.
Were you familiar with the play?
I never read the play until I met them! It's not in the British curriculum. Our version is sort of Look Back in Anger. I had heard of it, I just hadn't gotten around to reading it. So I read it in an hour and a half and said, "Oh my God, I have to play this part."
Was Broadway always a dream for you?
From, like, day one. This is a childhood dream come true. I never really thought about film career; my dream would be to be on Broadway. I've been bouncing around since I knew I got the part. And it's living up to my expectations. It's like a buzz going to the theater every day.
How nervous were you on the night of the first preview? What do you remember?
I was actually more nervous before I came to America, the two weeks before the first read-through. Flying over here, I was thinking I'm gonna be a complete fool, how can I play this iconic American part? There was all that. Also, being with such big actors and whether I could keep up. [But] when I got onstage, I felt at home.
Had you known Denzel Washington before starting work?
I never met him before the first rehearsals. But I'm working with the top actor. That's all I ever care about. All of them: wherever I look on the stage, I'm with top actors. Denzel is phenomenal. He's a real, proper stage actor. He's very generous onstage. It's an ensemble piece. He lets everyone have their turn and it's not about him.
We tend to think of Raisin as a vehicle for a great male actor, often forgetting that the play has three incredible roles for female performers of various ages. That's a rare thing.
I do think it's a very feminist play. It was so ahead of its time. It was radical. I had never read anything about Raisin, on purpose. All I read was the script and research[ed] the time period.
What guts it must have taken for Lorraine Hansberry to present the idea of abortion on stage in 1959.
And the idea of being an atheist. There are all kinds of radical ideas. So many things like that come up. It's extraordinary.
You get to say dialogue that is not only so beautiful it's poetry, but it feels like it could have been written today.
That's what I feel like every night. Every night I'm saying the most poignant sentences. Everything that she's talking about is so true for today. When Walter says, "Between the takers and the tooken…" I feel like that ripples through the audience — the massive gap between the rich and poor. There are so many lines that are just relevant today. I think it's a great play for all times.
There's that stereotype that British audiences are very reserved and Americans are the complete opposite. Are you used to audiences as vociferous as American ones?
It's different every night. We get spontaneous rounds of applause for different things. I heard someone the other night saying, "Yeah, take the money." You always hear them but I always try to turn the volume down and tell the story. I don't know if all American audiences are like this. They're much noisier [than British audiences] and include themselves in the story, and I love it. You just feel really alive and that everyone is really listening.