Salisbury native revels in Poitier role

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, August 17, 2011

By Elizabeth Cook
If he had spotted Sidney Poitier in the audience on closing night, Kevin Carroll might have faltered during his last performance of “A Raisin in the Sun.”
Poitier, an Academy Award-winning actor, had been in the first Broadway production of the play 52 years ago. Carroll was playing what had been Poitier’s role.
At the end of this spring’s performance of the play, Poitier joined the surprised cast on stage, and an already electric evening nearly exploded.
“It almost felt like it was going to lift the roof of the theater off,” Carroll said.
Carroll — son of Mae and Ken Carroll of Salisbury and a Salisbury High graduate — felt honored to portray Walter Lee Younger in the play, directed by Phylicia Rashad of “The Cosby Show” fame and presented by Ebony Repertory Theatre at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles.
“A Raisin in the Sun” is a classic, he said, as is the role of Walter Lee.
“It’s a rite of passage role, as it’s known,” Carroll said during a phone interview from Los Angeles. It’s one of the great roles in literature, for its quality and importance, he said.
“A Raisin in the Sun” was the first play written by an African American woman to reach Broadway, a tribute to the power of Lorraine Hansberry’s writing.
The play centers on the Youngers, an African-American family living in Chicago sometime between World War II and the 1950s. The family is grappling with how to put a $10,000 insurance check to use. Walter Lee wants to invest in a get-rich scheme.The matriarch of the family wants to buy a house in a white neighborhood.
The last performance of this spring’s production was an unforgettable moment for Carroll.
“We had such an electric show for the closing,” Carroll said. “We had a standing ovation.”
Producer Wren Brown came out and spoke about the importance and legacy of the play.
Then he announced that Poitier had come to see the show and invited the actor to the stage of the 400-seat theater.
Poitier walked out and starting shaking hands with all the crew members.
“All of a sudden, we met face-to-face,” Carroll said. He saw recognition on Poitier’s face as the star met the actor portraying Walter Lee.
“We both recognized that the moment was so much bigger than we were,” Carroll said. “He did a thumbs up and then we hugged. …”
Carroll said he still can’t find words to adequately describe the moment.
“I can only tell you that I was sincerely moved. … I feel justified in this path I have chosen more than ever before.”
Carroll has been doing off-Broadway shows for about 17 years and in 2009 won an Obie award for sustained excellence in performance.
But he considers himself a journeyman, one who does not look for celebrity or fame. “You have to agree with yourself not to be defined by people’s approval or people’s disapproval.
But being a part of this show was affirming. An online search finds reviewers of “Raisin in the Sun” calliing Carroll “forceful,” “excellent,” “powerful” and “formidable but unjustifiably obscure ” — a contrast with Sean (Puff Daddy) Combs, who played the part in a 2004 Broadway revival.
“A Raisin in the Sun” was a surprise hit on Broadway in 1959 and at the movie box office two years later, proving not only that black audiences would go to the theater, but also that white audiences would take an interest in a play and movie whose cast was predominantly black.
“It would literally change the face of Broadway,” Carroll said.
That first cast included names and faces that became familiar to the American public through the years. In addition to Poitier, the cast included Ruby Dee, Claudia McNeil, Diana Sands, Ivan Dixon, Louis Gossett Jr. and John Fiedler.
They acted in the movie version that came out in 1961, too.
“A Raisin in the Sun” also marked a turning of the tide for Poitier, Carroll said. “Not only is it about him being a star, but also his becoming an international symbol of dignity ….”
Poitier went on to do films such as “Lilies of the Field,” for which he won an Oscar, as well as “To Sir, With Love,” “In the Heat of the Night,” “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and “They Call Me Mr. Tibbs.”
Carroll said Poitier embodied grace, dignity and strength for his generation.
Knowing that Poitier had taken the time to see the play, and that the play itself was one of the most important shows “in the canon of black theater,” Carroll said, gave him a deep sense of gratitude.
“It felt like graduation day after years in the theater.”