By: David Sheward
When it was first announced that Denzel Washington would be headlining a revival of A Raisin in the Sun, I was skeptical. The classic 1959 Lorraine Hansberry drama of a Chicago family fighting poverty and racism had been revived not too long ago with rap musician-actor Sean Combs in the lead under the same director, Kenny Leon. In addition, Washington, at 59, was 20 years older than the role of Walter Lee Younger as written, and the glamorous Diahann Carroll was set to play Lena, Walter’s no-nonsense mother. It appeared the producers were more interested in star casting than in finding the most appropriate actors for the leads. Then Carroll dropped out to be replaced by the lesser-known but more down-to-earth LaTanya Richardson Jackson.
Not only does Jackson deliver a warm, glowing performance as the loving, sometimes domineering matriarch of the Younger family, and Washington prove that he can surmount the age gap between himself and his character, but Leon conveys startling new insights more than justifying another look at Raisin. In Leon’s previous production, Combs was not equal to his co-stars Phylicia Rashad and Audra McDonald; here all the performers are at the same high level.
It’s clear this a new, vital take on a classic even before the show starts. We hear the voice of Hansberry in a radio interview with Studs Terkel, stating that the American stage shouldn’t be confined to six blocks in Manhattan and calling for a national theater. (Fifty-five years later, her plea is still largely unheeded.) The lights come up on Sophie Okonedo as Ruth, Walter’s exhausted wife, standing behind a scrim center stage in designer Mark Thompson’s enclosed box of a set. An alarm clock pierces the silence, the scrim rises, and another day of drudgery has begun. The household slowly wakes, and Hansberry brilliantly depicts the tension among them through gritty monetary details. The couple’s young son needs 50 cents for school. Walter Lee needs a dollar for carfare. By emphasizing these details and placing the Youngers in such a small, dark space as their home, Leon creates a heartbreaking picture of the family trapped by economic pressure and driven to despair, a condition not unfamiliar to Americans of all races in 2014.
At the performance attended, Washington’s entrance was greeted with whoops of approval, but this is no movie star turn. Thwarted by prejudice, Walter longs to escape his menial job as a chauffeur and invest the family’s anticipated insurance funds in a liquor store. When he starred in August Wilson’s Fences, Washington lacked the dramatic weight to convince as the bitter ex-baseball player Troy Maxson, and his charm worked against him. Here his boyish energy is used to convey Walter’s gnawing frustration and immaturity. He paces the cramped apartment like a young tiger trapped in a cage. The character’s age has been raised to 40, and he is totally convincing as a man forced to play a boy’s role not only by white society but also by his steel-willed mother.
As mentioned, Jackson is perfect as the iron-fisted-velvet-gloved Lena, sweetly maternal, yet authoritative. You can see it’s hard for her to relinquish control of the family. In the play’s final moments, she cedes power to her son and lets him confront the bigoted representative of the white community the Youngers plan to move to, and a mix of emotions and memories plays across her face.
The rest of the ensemble is expertly balanced so that Washington and Jackson do not dominate. Okonedo captures Ruth’s weary striving and yearning for a home where she doesn’t have to brave roaches or share the bathroom with the rest of the building. Anika Noni Rose is an electric wire as the impulsive, idealistic, college-age sister Beneatha. Sean Patrick Thomas and Jason Dirden are equally intense are her two very different suitors, a Nigerian exchange student and a nouveau riche snob. Stephen McKinley Henderson has a blazing cameo as Walter’s business partner, eloquently recounting how both have been scammed. David Cromer handily avoids stereotype as the white visitor, creating a frightening real, dangerously banal portrait of American racism. But Hansberry’s play goes far beyond this one issue and is not a simple political tract. Leon’s new production illuminates all the aspects of this complex work, giving us a blazing Sun.
April 3-June 15. Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 40 minutes, including intermission. $67-149. (212) 362-6000. www.telecharge.com