Malcolm-Jamal Warner has big shoes to fill. Sidney Poitier-sized shoes.
Warner, whose name is still synonymous with Theo Huxtable, his Emmy-nominated role on the classic television series The Cosby Show, currently stars in Arena Stage's production of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, Todd Kreidler's stage adaptation of William Rose's 1967 screenplay. Warner is playing Poitier's landmark role, Dr. John Prentice, an African-American man engaged to a white woman whose family's progressively liberal leanings are put to the test when they meet him.
The forty-three-year-old actor admits off the bat that he's "not setting out to do what Sidney did with the role," despite having recently watched the film for the first time in over a decade to prepare. And while Warner himself might be best known for his screen work, he's no stranger to the stage. "I was doing community theater since I was about nine," he says. "Ever since Cosby I've been going back to theater every couple of years. [I did] A Midsummer Night's Dream [at] La Jolla Playhouse [in San Diego], Freefall at Victory Gardens Theatre in Chicago, [Three Ways Home] off-Broadway. Theater is a big part of what I do."
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner was the opportunity Warner says he's always wanted: to get to work with Tony-nominated director Kenny Leon (A Raisin in the Sun), whom he greatly admires. "I auditioned for Kenny in Fences a couple years back," Warner remembers, "so I jumped at the chance to be able to work with him." But just weeks before rehearsal began, Leon, who has spearheaded this play through readings and even an announced Broadway opening in 2008 (which never transpired), bowed out citing scheduling conflicts. He was replaced by David Esbjornson.
"Of course I wanted to work with Kenny," Warner says, citing the acclaimed director's longtime passion for the production as a key element to his signing on. "But to be able to do the show, and revive Sidney Poitier's role, is obviously paramount." Still, his excitement to work with Esbjornson, whose Broadway productions of Driving Miss Daisy and The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? won critical and audience acclaim, is palpable. "Just the approach that David has gives us the chance to go a little bit deeper in the subject matter," Warner continues. "We have more leeway and freedom in this production than they had when they were doing the movie, just based on the racial climate of the time."
Working with playwright Kreidler, a frequent collaborator of the late August Wilson, has also provided Warner with joy. "I'm most struck by the working relationship with Todd," Warner notes. "He has been very much in the collaborative effort, making some [script] changes to reflect the approach that we're taking. In theater, you don't necessarily get one, the opportunity, and two, a writer who's amenable to making changes."
Whether Guess Who's Coming to Dinner will make its way to Broadway is anyone's guess — after all, it's been six years since the first announcement. Still, Warner has hope, both for himself and the play. "It's a goal. Kenny's been working to get this production going for a while."
For now, though, it's about doing the best production they can at Arena Stage and surprising the film's ardent fans. "I think people who have seen the movie will be very pleasantly surprised at the approach we're taking," Warner concludes. "I think people are going to walk away seeing a reflection of where we are as a liberal society."