NEW YORK — The Denzel Washington you meet backstage at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre is not exactly living a glamorous Hollywood life. He’s more like a college kid during finals.
He wears a black Yankee cap, black sweat pants and blue sneakers. There are free weights on a counter and a bottle of diet cola. Notebooks and papers are everywhere. He’s fighting off the New York chill with some chicken noodle soup laced with hot sauce.
“Have a seat,” the star says, waving to a banged-up sofa and settling down in his own seat in front of a makeshift desk made from a mini-fridge. “I’ve got good heat here.”
Good heat, comfortable clothes, soup — the unfussy Broadway version of Denzel Washington seems completely in his element as he puts the finishing touches on one of America’s greatest plays, “A Raisin in the Sun.”
“It’s just a great opportunity — that’s how I look at it,” says Washington. “It’s like getting back to your roots. It’s going good. But around about the 70th show, I might be going, ‘What am I doing?’”
Like an athlete in training and currently dressed the part, Washington has poured himself into the work, filling two composition books with notes and leaving every page of his script highlighted, underlined or annotated.
The first notebook starts with the poem “A Dream Deferred” by Langston Hughes, the work that helped inspire the play, which Washington has handwritten. A few pages later is a photo pasted of the playwright, Lorraine Hansberry (“I got her in there! I forgot I had her in there,” he says while flipping through.)
The play marks Washington’s first return to Broadway since his Tony Award-winning turn in “Fences” in 2010 and every preview has been sold out, with top premium tickets going for as much as $348.
“Denzel? Listen, he’s a Stradivarius,” says co-star LaTanya Richardson Jackson, an old friend and Samuel L. Jackson’s wife. “He’s so versatile. It’s so wonderful being on the stage with him. He’s so elegant and so giving.”
Set in 1950s Chicago, “A Raisin in the Sun” centers on the struggling Younger family, who anxiously await a $10,000 insurance check — and the ensuing squabbles over how to spend it.
Washington plays Walter Lee, a chauffeur with dreams of opening a liquor store, a role made famous by Sidney Poitier, who played it in the original 1959 production and reprised it in a 1961 movie.
In a twist, this revival is in the same theater where Poitier debuted the play.
How far has Washington gone in his research? It turns out all the way to Poitier’s home. The two actors recently met to talk about the role and when Poitier rose to act out scenes, Washington pulled out his cellphone to film it (“As you can see, I’m no cameraman,” he jokes as he shares the jerky images).
“He’s so generous and complimentary and he was like, ‘Oh you’re going to kill. You’re going to be better than I was,’ and all this stuff,” Washington says. “He’s just a sweet, gentle man. It wasn’t even about the play anymore. I was just like, ‘I’m going to come hang with him.’”
Washington may be the Academy Award-winning actor known for “Glory” and “Training Day,” but he says his dream when he first started acting at Fordham University was to be onstage.
His first two roles in college were “The Emperor Jones” by Eugene O’Neill and Shakespeare’s “Othello.”
“I was too ignorant to know what pressure even was,” he laughs.
As a young man, Washington once caught James Earl Jones star in “Oedipus the King” uptown and then sneaked into Jones’ dressing room, where he hung out as the older actor greeted well-wishers.
“Obviously he didn’t know who I was — I was a student. I’m picking up his rings and his props while he’s talking to the people. He probably looked and thought, ‘Oh, he’s probably a young actor.’ I’m like, ‘Man, that’s what I want. I want to do that. I want to do what he’s doing,’” he says.
The revival of “A Raisin in the Sun” hasn’t been completely without drama: Last month, the cast was shook up when Diahann Carroll pulled out and Richardson Jackson stepped in as the family matriarch.
“Diahann realized she just couldn’t handle it, physically. If we live long enough, we’re all going to come to that place where we go, like, ‘OK,’” says Washington. “Even I had my doubts in the beginning. Can I remember all this?”
Richardson Jackson, who was last on Broadway in the Tony-winning 2009 revival of “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” had acted before opposite Washington — they both were in Ntozake Shange’s “Spell #7” in the late ’70s. He pushed for her to come onboard to play his mother, saying “I knew she was strong and powerful.”
At 64, she’s only five years older than Washington, 59, but he notes that a 32-year-old Poitier played Walter Lee opposite 41-year-old Claudia McNeil in the original Broadway production.
“No, you can’t have a baby at 5 but I don’t think you can have one at 9, either,” jokes Washington. “That’s acting. She’s my mom and I’m her son.”
This time on Broadway, Washington has changed a few things, starting with his Playbill bio, which had grown unwieldy. He sliced it down: “It was really blowing my own horn,” he says. “I don’t need to advertise. I got the part.”
He also dedicates his performance to the late Tony Scott, who directed Washington in such films as “Crimson Tide” and “Man on Fire” and committed suicide in 2012. “I thought about Tony and I wanted to mention Tony,” says Washington.
His mother, who turned 90 on Saturday, plans to come to New York to see her son in the play and another who has promised to come and cheer is none other than Poitier. “I said to him, ‘Don’t come early,’” Washington says. “He said, ‘No, I’m coming.’ I said, ‘Not early. And don’t tell me when.’”