On the Spot: Malcolm-Jamal Warner, star of ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’ at Arena Stage

November 27, 2013
Tess Malis Kincaid, left, Malcolm-Jamal Warner, center, and Tom Key co-star in Arena Stage’s stage version of the 1967 film “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” (Tony Powell)
Tess Malis Kincaid, left, Malcolm-Jamal Warner, center, and Tom Key co-star in Arena Stage’s stage version of the 1967 film “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” (Tony Powell)

Malcolm-Jamal Warner, who played Theo on “The Cosby Show,” was a welcome guest in America’s living rooms between 1984 and 1992. In Arena Stage’s production of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” his character is not as warmly met by the Draytons, a white family whose progressive views on race (for the 1960s, anyway) are shaken when their daughter’s fiance turns out to be black.

You’re most famous for your work on television. What’s the attraction of live theater?
I started doing community theater when I was 9. I always say theater is my favorite platform, but TV is my favorite paycheck.

Are there differences in how you work onstage as opposed to in front of the camera?
The whole approach to theater is different because you’re using different muscles.

How so?
Everything you do has to carry throughout the theater. When you get to television, and this is something I had to learn, you’ve got cameras to capture everything. In the first season of “Cosby,” the note I kept getting was “Jamal, you don’t have to talk so loud.”

This show is based on the 1967 movie, in which Sidney Poitier played your role. Does that affect how you approach the script at all?
You have to approach it as a totally original piece. I am not going to imitate Mr. Poitier, even if I could. We also have an opportunity here: Because of the time period in which the movie was shot and the racial climate at the time, they had to be pretty safe with the subject matter. Whereas in 2013, we’re in a different racial climate, so we can go a little further emotionally.

Your character, or the whole show?
With my character there’s a very definite emotional through line you did not see in the movie. There’s a lot they had to play for comedy.

So the play isn’t a comedy?
The humor and wit are still in the play. People familiar with the movie are going to be pleasantly surprised at the seriousness with which we take the subject matter.

Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW; Fri. through Jan. 5, $50-$105; 202-488-3300. (Waterfront)

Kristen Page-Kirby covers film for The Washington Post Express.
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Kristen Page-Kirby | November 27, 2013