Tonys: 'A Raisin in the Sun' and the Curious Case of Its Missing Nomination
THR's awards analyst on the critically acclaimed revival of Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 play, and the Tony snub of its leading man, Denzel Washington.
NEW YORK – Last night, I attended a performance of A Raisin in the Sun, the critically acclaimed revival of Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 Broadway play turned 1961 movie, at the 1,058-seat Ethel Barrymore Theatre on 47th Street, which was packed to the gills with excited folks who came to see Denzel Washington's take on a role that Sidney Poitier made famous in the same venue more than a half-century ago.
This is what a Broadway show is supposed to look and feel like, I thought to myself as the curtain came up on the veritable hit (last week it grossed more than any other production first mounted in 2014), which President Barack Obama and his wife swung by to see a few weeks ago, and which was nominated last week for best revival of a play, best actress in a play (LaTanya Richardson Jackson) and best featured actress in a play (both Anika Noni Rose and Sophie Okonedo).
When the curtain came down two hours and 40 minutes later, I felt every bit the same, and apparently so did most everyone else in attendance -- among them James Earl Jones, Steve McQueen, Jessica Lange and Sarah Paulson -- since it received a lengthy and enthusiastic standing ovation, loudest of all when Washington took his bow.
Which -- to me, at least -- begs the question: Why wasn't Washington nominated for the best actor in a play Tony (which he won in 2010 for Fences), even though all three of his female costars received recognition?
It's true that Sean Combs, who inhabited the same part, as Walter Lee Younger, in the 2004 revival of Raisin (which was also directed by Kenny Leon), was not nominated either, whereas his three female costars were. But that was almost certainly attributable to the fact that Combs, in the view of most critics, did not give a particularly distinguished performance. That's not the case with Washington, who has been widely praised.
Some have suggested that Washington was excluded because he is too old to be believed in the part of an anxious dreamer, with one calling it "a distraction, an elephant in the room for a play that deserves no such issue in its way." The character is said to be 35 in Hansberry's script and 40 in Leon's re-revival; Poitier played him on stage when he was just 34; but Washington is 59, just five years younger than Jackson, who plays his mother, and 18 years older than Rose, who plays his sister. Still, I'm skeptical about that -- it did nothing to keep me from getting lost in the story.
I think the real explanation is threefold.
For one thing, as The New York Times' Ben Brantley has observed, he may have done his job almost "too well" to stand out to voters, having "become part of the breathing, intricately interwoven canvas called an ensemble," as opposed to standing out from it. As Brantley put it, "You never feel that there’s a famous person blocking the view of works that have been carefully and thoroughly rethought."
Additionally, the best actor in a play category is packed with great options this year. Nobody was going to deny a spot for Bryan Cranston (All the Way), who made a terrific impression in his Broadway debut, as did Chris O'Dowd (Of Mice and Men). Tony Shalhoub (Act One) is on a roll, doing great work -- and earning a nom -- for the second consecutive year, arguably for a role that should have been categorized as a featured one. And Mark Rylance (Richard III) and Samuel Barnett (Twelfth Night) undoubtedly -- and deservedly -- received bonus points for their work in two acclaimed shows that played in repertory. There were numerous other worthy candidates, as well.
But, perhaps most pertinently of all, members of the Broadway community have conflicted feelings about someone like Washington -- who is, first and foremost, a movie star -- venturing into their neighborhood. These were articulated to me by Harley Harrison, a young New York actor beside whom I sat at Raisin, who gushed with admiration for Washington's work and the crowds and excitement that he generated, but also expressed frustration that so many Broadway shows now star film and television A-listers like the two-time Oscar winner, as opposed to "theater actors," who feel increasingly boxed out of even having a chance at landing the plummest of roles by the "big names" who seem to walk right into them if and when they please.
Of course, what is also true is that, in the age of cable television and the Internet, it is as great a challenge as ever for theater producers to get people to buy tickets for the theater, and many of these shows might never have been mounted in the first place had they not had a big box-office attraction attached to them.
Regardless, when one looks at certain Tony nominations and exclusions this year, it does seem that conflicted feelings may be at play: The Cripple of Inishmaan was nominated for best revival of a play, but its star, Daniel Radcliffe, went unmentioned; of Cabaret's principal castmembers eligible for nominations for this revival, two received them, but its leading lady, Michelle Williams, did not; Of Mice and Men was nominated for best actor in a play, but that actor was not James Franco; and the list goes on.
As for Washington, despite his "snub" he seems to be doing just fine -- honored just to have the opportunity to walk in the footsteps of his hero, Poitier, just as he always has been.