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What kind of Lena Younger would Diahann Carroll have been?

By Ruth Feldstein


In February, fans learned that Diahann Carroll had withdrawn from A Raisin in the Sun. The most recent revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s award-winning 1959 drama opened in April, and is now nominated for five Tony awards. Carroll relinquished her role as Lena Younger, the widowed matriarch in an African-American family living on the South Side of Chicago, due to the “demands of the vigorous rehearsal schedule and the subsequent eight-performances-a-week playing schedule,” according to a spokesperson for Raisin. The 78-year-old Carroll’s choice is easy to understand, but it also invites the question — what kind of Lena Younger might Carroll have been? How would an actress long known for her elegance and haute couture wardrobe have shed the trappings of high fashion to take on the part of a working class black mother who wants to use her dead husband’s insurance money to buy a home and improve the life of her family?

Diahann Carroll in 1976. Image in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Diahann Carroll in 1976. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Last August, when the news broke that Carroll and Denzel Washington would have lead roles in this version of Raisin—with Carroll as mother to Washington’s Walter Lee Younger—much was made of their combined star power and the iconic Carroll’s return to Broadway for the first time in 30 years (as well as Washington’s age; the 59-year old portrays a much younger man, though the character has “aged” in this version). In some ways, though, it’s hard to know why the producers looked to Carroll in the first place. Carroll is older than most actresses who have played Lena Younger. Even more, ever since a still-teenage Carol Diahann Johnson changed her name to Diahann Carroll and left the home of her middle class parents, she has been known as a “chic chanteuse.” The link between Carroll and glamour became entrenched as her career ascended: when she sang at the Persian Room or the Plaza Hotel in the late 1950s, in her role as a high class and well-dressed model in the Broadway show No Strings in 1962 (for which she earned a Tony award), and when she portrayed a respectable, and well-dressed school teacher who travels to Paris with her white friend in the film Paris Blues in 1964 (alongside costars Sidney Poitier, Paul Newman, and Joanne Woodward). But the singer and actress soared to national prominence with Julia, a television series that ran from 1968-1971. Here Carroll was cast as the well-dressed middle class nurse and widowed mother of a young boy (her husband was killed in Vietnam). Julia was one of the first television series in which a black woman had a starring role and was not a maid or domestic. The show was an opportunity for Carroll to gain unprecedented exposure on a number-one ranking series — one that was “slightly controversial” she said, because it integrated the living rooms of white audiences through television, but was not controversial enough to “interfere with the ratings.”

If Julia cemented Carroll’s reputation as a barrier-breaking international celebrity, it also in some senses profoundly limited her career. Indeed, the first time Carroll played against type after Julia, her efforts had mixed results. In 1974, she starred in Claudine. The film was set in Harlem, and Carroll portrayed the 36-year-old single mother of six on welfare who struggles to combine motherhood and romance (with James Earl Jones, as garbage man Rupert Marshall). Claudine was notable for its critique of a welfare system that policed working class black women, and its portrayal of a single black mother who loves and cares for her children even if she also curses and beats her daughter in one scene. More remarkably, for the time, the film showed that a poor black unmarried woman could be sexually active and a good mother. With its largely African American cast and urban landscape, and with a contemporary soundtrack featuring Gladys Knight and the Pips, Claudine stood out as a rare alternative to the more violent and (mostly) male-centered blaxploitation films that were popular in the early 1970s. A critic in the Chicago Defender applauded it as a film that could “uplift” those who had “been ignored on film until now, the ADC mother” (ADC was the acronym for Aid to Dependent Children, and shorthand for welfare in that era). Carroll’s performance as Claudine earned her an Academy Award nomination for best actress in a leading role—only the fourth time a black woman had ever been nominated in that category.

But fans and critics were divided in their response to Carroll, precisely because the role was such a departure. Some applauded her for being willing and able to take on the role of Claudine. (She inherited the part from actress Diana Sands, ill with cancer in the 1970s but who had starred in the original production of Raisin in 1959, another link between Claudine and Raisin.) A “deglamorized Diahann Carroll is surprisingly effective as a 36-year old city wise and world weary mother who battles welfare department bureaucracy,” wrote one reviewer. Many more came to the opposite conclusion, asserting that Carroll did not have the life experiences to represent working class black women and could not tell their stories with any degree of authenticity. “Even without makeup, she still looks and acts like Julia,” wrote one; Time attacked the star for a “slumming expedition by a woman best known for playing the upwardly mobile Julia on TV.” With her family’s middle class background and her long association with well-dressed and glamorous heroines, Carroll simply could not “presume to speak for all black women.” The Oscar nomination was a significant milestone, but it did not open many doors thereafter; Carroll later said that she felt that her career floundered after Claudine.

Certainly, the question of who gets to tell black women’s stories is no less fraught in 2014 than it was in 1974—as critiques of the film The Help (2011) for hijacking black women’s voices, protests that actress Zoe Saldana is not the right artist to portray singer Nina Simone in a forthcoming biopic, and more recent debates about Beyoncé all begin to suggest. For decades, Diahann Carroll has been at the center of these debates—from her role as a model in an interracial romance in the Broadway play No Strings, to her role as Dominque Deveraux on the nighttime soap opera Dynasty in the 1980s– the “first black bitch on television” as Carroll herself put it. Would Carroll have encountered the same resistance today that she did forty years earlier? Would she have been able to navigate that chasm between her off-stage aura of glamour and an on-stage role of a weary yet strong working class woman who dreams about owning a home more easily in 2014 than she did in 1974? And would media-savvy audiences today, tuned into the ways that any public person is always performing some version of him or herself, have been more open to Carroll and what she could have brought to Lena with her decades of stardom than they were to the former “Julia” when she transformed into the working class Claudine? I respect Carroll’s choice to withdraw from Raisin, and the splendid Latanya Richardson Jackson has infused the part of Lena Younger with a humanity and dignity. But with the Tony awards season underway and with Carroll’s under-rated but sensitive and subversive portrayal of a poor black woman in the film Claudine in mind, I also can’t help but regret what we’ve all missed out on.

Ruth Feldstein is Associate Professor of History at Rutgers University, Newark. She is the author of How it Feels to Be Free: Black Women Entertainers and the Civil Rights Movement.

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