While many audiences may be more familiar with Malcolm-Jamal Warner from his decades of television work (he’s the former Theo Huxtable of “The Cosby Show” and has been appearing on “Major Crimes” and “Sons of Anarchy” lately), they can catch a new side of him as John Prentice in Huntington Theater’s new production of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”
The play, based on the classic 1967 film starring Sidney Poitier, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, still resonates, particularly in a country facing ongoing questions about racial issues. “Despite what some people believe, we are not in a post-racial America, so racial relations is still a heavy topic,” says Warner. “What’s really interesting about this particular piece and the approach [playwright] Todd Kreidler and [director] David Esbjornson took, is that they were able to take this subject matter and still make it universal.”
Warner played the role once before, in a production in Washington, D.C., and says he was interested in the part for a few reasons. “It’s such an iconic film, for one, but to be able to do any role that Sidney Poitier has done is a huge honor.”
Poitier had already won his Academy Award by the time he appeared in the film, but Warner says he’s not trying to imitate the performance. “I would be too intimidated trying to do what he did,” he says. He called Poitier’s version of the character “very cool” and says that his version of the character has some “chinks in his armor, and there are places where you see him begin to unravel.”
For anyone thinking it’s strange to see Warner onstage, he says it isn’t anything new to him – he got his start acting in community theater, when an agent saw him perform in a play as a nine year old. “I remember the first curtain call, and I remember coming out, and people standing up and clapping, and [thinking], wow, I can dig this,” Warner says with a laugh.
It seems to have worked out. “I’ve been in the business at this point all of my life and I’m an actor, I’m a director, I’m a poet, I’m a musician,” says Warner. “I keep it diverse within the field of entertainment, but outside this field, I wouldn’t have the slightest idea what I would do.”
On that little "Community" joke about the sweater
Warner says he's not usually a fan of "Cosby" jokes at this stage of his life, and when he first read the "Community" joke that put him in an imitation of one of Bill Cosby's famous sweaters, he didn't quite get the joke. That changed once he saw it in person. "When I got there for a wardrobe fitting, and I saw the sweater, I was like, ohhh, that makes so much more sense now. I get it. And I fell out," Warner says. "I was like, that is genius. That was definitely one ["Cosby" joke] I was totally in support of, and I was very surprised that that became such a popular part of the show."
If you go
'Guess Who's Coming to Dinner'
Through Oct. 5
Avenue of the Arts/BU Theatre
264 Huntington Ave.