Denzel Washington and Sophie Okonedo
in a scene from A Raisin in the Sun
(Photo credit: Brigitte Lacombe)
Most theatergoers will be tempted to attend the new Broadway revival of A Raisin in the Sun in order to see two-time Oscar winning actor Denzel Washington in his first time on the New York stage since 2010. However, it is Kenny Leon’s pitch-perfect production of the Lorraine Hansberry play which demonstrates that it an American classic on the same order as Our Town or The Glass Menagerie. In his capable hands, the fine cast makes this play both extremely moving and extremely satisfying. It is to Hansberry’s credit that the play seems even more relevant to all now than when it was written in 1959 both due to economic recession, the politically correct world we live in and the search for self-realization that so many people seem to be going through today.
The play tells the story of the hard-working black Younger family living in a shabby two-room apartment on Chicago’s South Side, sometime between World War II and 1960. The patriarch, Walter Lee, Sr. has died recently and the family is awaiting a $10,000 insurance check (about $88,000 today) which is due to arrive in a day or two. Each of them looks forward to using the money for a different purpose: Walter Lee, Jr., a chauffeur who hates his dead-end job, has dreams of opening a liquor store which he sees as his means to wealth and happiness. His wife Ruth, who finds herself pregnant, would like a larger apartment for the family as 10-year-old son Travis sleeps on the living room sofa used by the family until late at night. Walter’s younger sister Beneatha, now at college, needs money to pay for tuition to medical school. The widow Lena, a church-going woman of strong character and set ways known as Mama, only wants the best for her children.
However, Mama’s objections to selling liquor only make Walter more depressed and he is becoming increasingly distant from his wife. Ruth is considering getting rid of the new baby as she cannot see a way out of their economic and family problems. There simply is no room for another person in the two-room apartment. Beneatha is in a quandary over two college boyfriends: the rich George Murchison, an example of the assimilated black man who has rejected his heritage, but also does not see any purpose to college except as a way of getting ahead in American society, and Nigerian-born Joseph Asagai who introduces Bennie to her African roots yet considers her too materialistic. Then without telling the others, Mama uses part of the money for a down payment on a small house in an all-white neighborhood which is certain to give everyone in the family new problems.
Director Leon, who piloted Washington to his Tony Award for the 2010 revival of August Wilson’s Fences, starts the play with two fascinating concepts: when the audience comes into the theater they are greeted with a 1959 radio conversation between Lorraine Hansberry and historian and broadcaster Studs Turkel, and then just before the play begins, the Langston Hughes poem, “What happens to a dream deferred?,” from which the title of the play is taken, is projected on the front curtain. Both of these inspired ideas help put the play in context.
While the play was originally ground-breaking for being the first Broadway play by a black woman playwright, as well as having the first black director on Broadway, A Raisin in the
Sun is the classic American family story. A hard-working family struggling with economic problems has become timely all over again with the number of foreclosures and job layoffs since 2008. Today its themes of hopes, aspirations, identity, struggling for upward mobility and self-realization still speak to audiences. And the topics of the generation gap and that of broken dreams are as timely as ever. A Raisin
in the Sun may deal with a black family prior to 1959 but its message is universal.
Bryce Clyde Jenkins and LaTanya
Richardson Jackson in a scene
from A Raisin in the Sun
(Photo credit: Brigitte Lacombe)
Aside from his box office star power, at age 59 Washington may seem a strange choice for the 35-year-old Walter Lee, Jr. (here moved up to age 40), but he very quickly makes you forget this age difference with his mercurial performance. He runs the gamut of emotions from depression to joy and he uses his body as well as his facial expressions to telegraph Walter’s feelings. His shoulders sag from a weariness of dreams deferred and the lines in his face suggest a hard life, but he is quick to lighten up the atmosphere with a prompt joke or retort. His Walter Lee is completely caught up in his unrealistic dreams of wealth and success that have been denied to him all of his life. Unlike many movie stars who come to the stage, he is always on and inhabits his character completely.
He is also part of a fine ensemble of actors who convince us that they are family who have been together for many years. LaTanya Richardson Jackson, seen most recently in Regina Taylor’s Stop
Reset at Signature Theatre, is an indomitable Mama, a foil for her high-strung children, and she offers both an impressive dignity, a heart full of love, and a wry sense of humor. As her younger daughter Beneatha, going through a troubled period of self-realization, Tony winner Anika Noni Rose is both fire and fury, angry at the old-fashioned ideas that don’t work for her any more, and inspired to make a lasting and meaningful contribution to society. Sophie Okonedo, the British film and stage star making her Broadway debut after her Oscar nominated performance in Hotel Rwanda and her British Independent Film Award for Dirty Pretty Things, shows all the weariness of Ruth, Walter’s wife, after her own years of disappointments and struggle. She lets us see her grow visibly taller when Mama informs her that the family will be moving to a larger house.
Rounding out the family, Bryce Clyde Jenkins is a delight as Walter and Ruth’s ten-year-old son Travis, high-spirited and inquisitive like most youth of that age even with the privations that he has suffered. Beneatha’s two college boyfriends make an interesting contrast. As the Nigerian born Asagai who plans to return to his own country to help his people, Sean Patrick Thomas has what used to be called continental charm plus a poise and self-possession that is impressive. Jason Dirden’s upper crust George Murchison has all the arrogance of the entitled. As the only white member of the cast, David Cromer (himself a noted stage director of Our Town and The Adding Machine) underplays Karl Lindner, the representative from the Clybourne Park Improvement Association sent to talk the Youngers out of moving into their house, so that his racism and bigotry is even more chilling. In his cameo appearance, Stephen McKinley Henderson, best known for his many appearances in the plays of August Wilson, rivets attention as Walter’s friend Bobo, even more feckless than he and in a panic to have to bring Walter bad news.
The design team has made some creative choices that enhance the overall experience. Not only has Mark Thompson brought the tiny, shabby, time-worn apartment very close to the apron of the stage, almost into the laps of the viewers, so that the audience feels the claustrophobia that is driving the Younger family apart, but he also includes for the first time in memory the hall and the door to the shared bathroom, so much a point of contention in this story. Ann Roth’s costumes beautifully capture that lived-in look that people on limited budgets often have, though Beneatha’s evening clothes show that Bennie has an eye for fashion. The lighting by Brian MacDevitt always directs our attention to the action but is so unobtrusive that it is never distracting or noticeable. The music between the scenes is the creation of Branford Marsalis (music curation) and Scott Lehrer (sound design).
Even if you think you have seen A Raisin in the Sun before, this is the definitive production for our time. Playwright Lorraine Hansberry’s poetry and depth of feeling blaze out as if newly minted. Under the assured direction of Kenny Leon, Denzel Washington and the rest of the fine cast put a towering slice of real life on the stage of the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. And the play’s message continues to be relevant after all these years.
A Raisin in the Sun (through June 15, 2014)
Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.raisinbroadway.com
Running time: two hours and 45 minutes including one intermission