“Me and my family…we are very plain people,” Denzel Washington says in “A Raisin in the Sun,” at the start of a monologue that by the end – “we are very proud people” — is one of the most moving in all of American theater.
But Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play, being given a worthwhile production at the Ethel Barrymore Theater , is not just an affecting family drama. The first play by a black woman ever produced on Broadway, it is a richly layered, well-structured, poetically-inspired work of literature; an often amusing entertainment; an insightful character study; a prophetic piece of social commentary – it is a masterpiece on just about every level.
Much of the reaction from the moment this new production was announced concerned Denzel Washington’s age. He is 59; the character he is portraying, Walter Lee Younger Jr., is supposed to be 35 (the script has been changed to make him 40.) Washington doesn’t look 35 or even 40; he looks his age. This continues to bother some people. His age doesn’t bother me. Consider it a new form of innovative casting — age-blind casting – and it’s not the first time for this show: In the original Broadway production, and then the 1961 movie, Sidney Poitier as Walter Lee Younger Jr. was only 10 years younger than Claudia McNeil, who played his mother Lena Younger. Yes, Washington is only five years younger than the actress playing his mother, LaTanya Richardson Jackson. But if a movie star like Denzel Washington wants to play Younger, I say: Bravo. Washington’s the reason this great play is back for its second-ever Broadway revival.
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Director Kenny Leon, who gave the play its first Broadway revival in 2004 starring Audra McDonald and Phylicia Rashad (who both won Tonys for their performances), and a game if inexperienced Sean Combs, has rethought this play, in ways that work better, and perhaps a few ways that don’t work as well. Denzel Washington works better as Walter Lee, a man with big dreams and bigger frustrations. He is a chauffeur who lives with his wife, son, sister and mother in their mother’s rattrap of a Chicago tenement apartment, but hopes to convince his mother to give him the $10,000 from the life insurance payment after the premature death of his father. Walter Lee wants to invest that money in a liquor store. Lena, who moved as a young woman to Chicago from the South and has faced a lifetime of disappointments with an adamant religious faith, doesn’t want to be in the liquor-selling business. She has other dreams for that money – to save some of it for medical school for Walter’s younger sister Beneatha (Anika Noni Rose), and to buy a house in a better neighborhood. In Act II, we learn that she has spent some of the money on a down payment for just such a house, in Clybourne Park.
RUTH: Clybourne Park? Mama, there ain’t no colored people living in Clybourne Park.
MAMA Well I, guess there’s going to be some now.
WALTER: So that’s the peace and comfort you went out and bought for us today!
MAMA: Son, I just tried to find the nicest place for the least amount of money for my family .
RUTH: Well—well—’course I ain’t one never been ‘fraid of no crackers, mind you—but—well wasn’t there no other houses nowhere?
MAMA: Them houses they put up for colored in them areas way
out all seem to cost twice as much as other houses. I did the best I could.
Now, of course, we know Clybourne Park, a fictional neighborhood in Chicago, because it’s the title of Bruce Norris’s play, which updates and riffs on “A Raisin in the Sun” using some of Lorraine Hansberry’s characters. “Clybourne Park” won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, an award that ironically was not bestowed on Hansberry, who died tragically young in 1965 at the age of 35.
Part of Hansberry’s craft is in weaving in so many issues – from redlining to abortion to African colonial struggles to the African-American generational shift – without making “A Raisin in the Sun” seem like a political play. Another part of the playwright’s superior craft is in creating such complex and involving female characters. Sophie Okonedo, who was so terrific as the terrified wife in Hotel Rwanda, here makes a splendid Broadway debut as Walter’s wife Ruth, weary from the daily compromises of poverty, but still hopeful, and still loving Walter, despite how much he irritates her.
Anika Noni Rose does her usual extraordinary job as Walter Lee’s sister Beneatha, an ambitious, idealistic, intellectually searching college student. Rose has shined in everything from her Tony-winning role as Emmie in the musical “Caroline, or Change” to Lorrell the main backup singer in the film ‘Dreamgirls” to the wily candidate Wendy Scott-Carr in the TV series “The Good Wife” to the African fussbudget of an assistant Grace Makutsi in “The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency” on HBO. Nobody has complained that, like Denzel Washington, Rose is – pardon the lack of gallantry in this – 20 years older than the character she is playing (in her case, thus twice the character’s age.) Perhaps this is because she is not in anybody’s radar the way Denzel Washington is. I would prefer to think it’s because everybody realizes how protean an actress she is. She delivers once again as the clear stand-in for the playwright (who obviously had fun satirizing herself, but also captures beautifully the black woman in transition.)
LaTanya Richardson Jackson replaced Diahann Carroll at virtually the last moment, and offers a credible turn as the mother, here (as with Phyllicia Rashad) as much a meddlesome grandmother as a source of strength.
It seems unfair to single out specific cast members because Leon has populated this production with some world-class talent – the actor and director David Cromer plays the genteel racist Karl Lindner; Stephen McKinley Henderson, the wonderful interpreter of August Wilson’s work, here plays the small but pivotal role of Walter’s friend and would-be business associate Bobo. Jason Dirden and Sean Patrick Thomas are both spot-on as Beneatha’s very different suitors, the rich college boy and the wise African exchange student (another clever way that Hansberry weaves in contemporary issues without seeming to do so.)
Together the cast creates an ensemble that makes the play feel spontaneous, promising the audience an entertainment rather than demanding their worship. (For this reason, I quibble with some of Leon’s choices that might detract from this sense of spontaneity — putting on the curtain the Langston Hughes poem, from which the play derives its title; creating a set that has the distancing effect of sometimes being placed behind a scrim; pauses before the action begins, accompanied by dramatic lighting and jazz music “curated” by Branford Marsalis )
Denzel Washington offers a different interpretation than we might be used to– more beaten-down than explosive. When an unknown white man shows up at their door, Walter quickly brushes down his hair as if he feels the need to present his best self. When his mother speaks to him, he paws nervously with his foot, like a horse stuck in a stable – a movement echoed very subtly (in what must be a directorial flourish) by his son Travis (Bryce Clyde Jenkins.) When he must admit a terrible mistake he has made to his mother, he seems to grow smaller; his reaction is heartrending. The scene of his self-humiliating minstrel act shortly before the monologue about being plain and proud, is horrifying, believable, masterful. There is no mistaking, in other words, what a fine actor Denzel Washington is, whatever his age.
A Raisin in the Sun
Ethel Barrymore Theater
By Lorraine Hansberry; directed by Kenny Leon; sets by Mark Thompson; costumes by Ann Roth; lighting by Brian MacDevitt; sound by Scott Lehrer; music curated by Branford Marsalis;. Through June 15
Cast: Denzel Washington (Walter Lee Younger), Sophie Okonedo (Ruth Younger), Anika Noni Rose (Beneatha Younger), David Cromer (Karl Lindner), Bryce Clyde Jenkins (Travis Younger), Jason Dirden (George Murchison), Sean Patrick Thomas (Joseph Asagai), Keith Eric Chappelle and Billy Eugene Jones (Moving Men), Stephen McKinley Henderson (Bobo) and LaTanya Richardson Jackson (Lena Younger).
Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes, including one intermission.
Tickets: $67.00 – $149.00
A Raisin in the Sun is set to run through June 15.