By Harry Haun
04 Apr 2014
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN
Sophie Okonedo comes to the role of Washington's life-battered wife from, of all places, gobs of British theatre. Two different dialogue coaches helped deep-six her natural accent and cover it with ugly-American sounds. Producer Rudin caught her in Haunted Child, a Joe Penhall play at the Royal Court in 2011 and insisted she play Ruth Younger. "I like the way she copes," Okonedo admitted. "She copes in many different situations and tries to make the best of things. She has enormous heart."
She and Bryce Clyde Jenkins, who plays her son, are making their Broadway debuts with this. "Broadway debut, play debut, theatre debut," the 13-year-olde underlined rather proudly. "My character is a good-hearted kid who has dreams of being normal like everyone else, having a big house, having a big yard."
Having Washington for a dad was a definite plus for him.
Beneatha Younger, the college-girl medical-student in the family, is an easy reach for Tony winner Anika Noni Rose. "I love her intelligence, her strength of spirit. She's very forward-thinking, she's very aware and awake. She has that youthfulness that is not going to be stamped down. She's unable to be held back. She's a dreamer — with a plan. She's undaunted. She does not allow herself to be fettered by the circumstances around her. She's on the cusp of womanhood and doesn't quite know what to do with herself to bring it out."
The African-American elite were out in full force — from dance legend Judith Jamison to director Spike Lee. Samuel L. Jackson, husband of the current Lena Younger, was seen in the lobby chatting it up with the Tony-winning one, Phylicia Rashad. Also: Tyson Chandler, Ashanti, George C. Wolfe, Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr., Cedric The Entertainer, Grace Hightower DeNiro, Douglas Turner Ward, Anna Maria Horsford, Michael Strahan and Pauletta Washington.
Also: Billy Crystal, Bobby Cannavale, Julianne Moore and director-hubby Bart Freundlich, Gretchen Mol and Tod Williams, Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan, Bridget Moynahan, Maggie Grace, Tonya Turner Winfield and Dave Winfield, and Oscar winner Melissa Leo.
Woodie King Jr., artistic director and all-round kingpin of New Federal Theatre, was in the road company of the original company of A Raisin in the Sun, playing one of the moving men who come in at the end to move the Youngers to higher ground. "Claudia McNeil was hard on young actors," he remembered. "She was only 42, but she was a big woman and could play that role like no one else. She was hard because she thought her time had passed and she didn't want that to happen. Once, she told me, 'Do not pick up the chair that way and take focus from me.'"