A Raisin in the Sun: Theater Review

Brigitte Lacombe
Sophie Okonedo and Denzel Washington in "A Raisin in the Sun"
The charged emotions and earthy humor of Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 play remain undimmed.

Denzel Washington stars with Sophie Okonedo, Anika Noni Rose and LaTanya Richardson Jackson in this deluxe Broadway revival of the landmark drama about a black Chicago family.

NEW YORK -- Denzel Washington is the star attraction, but it's the harmonious balance of an impeccably matched ensemble that makes Kenny Leon's lovingly staged revival of A Raisin in the Sun so alive with authentic feeling. The warmth as well as the frictions and frustrations of a real family ripple through this lived-in production, with an accomplished cast that nestles deep into every moment of humor, hope and sadness. Even in its more dated passages, Lorraine Hansberry's groundbreaking 1959 play remains a work of stirring compassion and humanity.

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This is Leon's second Broadway staging of the drama about the working-class, African-American Younger family, scrambling to escape 1950s South Side Chicago for a better life. He directed a 2004 revival in which the biggest marquee name, Sean Combs, acquitted himself without embarrassment for an untrained stage actor, but was outclassed by his more seasoned co-stars, Phylicia Rashad, Audra McDonald and Sanaa Lathan. Even so, that production showed what a durably well-made and emotionally effective play this is, becoming a commercial smash and winning Tonys for Rashad and McDonald. (The same principal cast subsequently filmed a 2008 ABC TV movie version, again directed by Leon.)

The chief reason for returning to A Raisin in the Sun so soon was no doubt Washington's desire to play Walter Lee Younger. The actor won a Tony four years ago in Leon's shattering revival of August Wilson's Fences. Washington has demonstrated real commitment to theater acting, inhabiting these two beautiful plays not as a movie star flexing his muscles but as an integrated ensemble member focused on the communal experience.

His casting raised eyebrows when it was announced, given that, at 59, Washington is more than 20 years Walter's senior. But the age factor becomes a non-issue the minute he hits the stage -- and not just because a tweak to the script changes the character from 35 to 40. Washington slides and swaggers around with the physicality of a still-young man who refuses to let go of his dreams, no matter how stubbornly they elude him. Almost boyish in his awkwardness at times, he threatens to jump out of his skin with restless energy, excitement or anger. As unlikely as it seems for an actor pushing 60 to portray a petulant character stumbling -- kicking and screaming with self-pitying resistance -- toward a late discovery of his maturity as paterfamilias, Washington's performance traces that arc with moving conviction.

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It's intended as no slight to the star or any of his castmates, however, to say that the standout here is British actress Sophie Okonedo, giving a tremendously affecting performance as Walter's care-worn wife, Ruth. Looking drawn, anxious and irritable as she slumps over the ironing board or lingers at the kitchen sink, this burdened woman seems almost a physical part of the Youngers' cramped apartment, a place she loathes and longs to leave behind with no less intensity than her husband. Only her weary pragmatism separates her imprisonment from Walter's.

In the meticulous realism of Mark Thompson's set, with its shabby wallpaper, aged furniture and just one small visible window that affords barely a glimmer of light from outside, their rented home is a daily reminder to its inhabitants of how stuck they are. It's a temporary situation that has somehow become permanent for two generations. The Youngers' 10-year-old son Travis (Bryce Clyde Jenkins) sleeps on the living room sofa; Walter's widowed mother, Lena (LaTanya Richardson Jackson), and younger sister, Beneatha (Anika Noni Rose), share the second bedroom; and every morning they compete with other residents for access to the bathroom across the hall.

The plot's conflicts swirl around the arrival of a $10,000 check from Walter's late-father's life insurance policy, and the clash over how that money should be spent. Walter wants to invest in a liquor store, insisting that his elevation from chauffeur to business owner would be his first step up a ladder of rapid ascension. But Lena -- for whom the check brings a renewed pang of grief by putting a price tag on her hardworking husband's life -- knows her son well enough to see the folly of that plan. Instead, she puts a down payment on a house, a choice that presents its own problems.

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Richardson Jackson stepped into the role at short notice after Diahann Carroll dropped out during rehearsals when she realized that, at 78, the physical demands of the schedule were too much for her. But there's no sense of being a late replacement in Richardson Jackson's spirited characterization. The actress brings a light touch to Lena's loving but stern maternal nature, willing to indulge her grown children only up to a point. And there's searing despair in her crushing disappointment as the story takes a bitter turn. Lena's acknowledgment of the spiritual poverty she sees in her son is heartbreaking.

Her mother-in-law's decision places Ruth in the uncomfortable spot of mediator. On one hand, she visibly lightens up, becoming giddy with joy at the thought of having space, light and a new environment around her after years in the claustrophobic apartment. On the other, she's torn between that plan and the less sound prospect of entrusting their big chance to an increasingly distant husband whose judgment she questions. Okonedo walks the line between Ruth's clear-sightedness and her devotion with piercing emotional transparency.

A different representation from Walter of the black transitional generation, Beneatha needs the money to go to medical school. Drawn to the notion of being a healer, she's also divided between two suitors: the courtly, well-heeled George Murchison (Jason Dirden), who wants a wife that's sophisticated but not too opinionated, and Nigerian college student Joseph Asagai (Sean Patrick Thomas). Under the latter's influence, Beneatha stops "mutilating" her hair, embraces her African heritage and becomes more politicized. It's in this character that Hansberry's writing veers toward the didactic, but the exquisite Rose -- who at 41 has no trouble convincing as an impressionable woman some 20 years younger -- brings natural vibrancy and truth to the role.

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While Walter and his ceaseless agitation provide the engine of the play, the resilience and enduring affections of the three strong women constitute its heart. Leon leans at times a little forcefully on the humor, giving the material a whisper of folksy sitcom. But the play's dramatic integrity is honored by the entire cast, who delicately weave its various monologues into the larger fabric. The ensemble also includes understated work from gifted stage director David Cromer as the one white character, Karl Lindner, the "welcome" ambassador from the residential neighborhood where the Youngers intend to relocate. (Lindner resurfaced memorably as a character in Bruce Norris2011 Pulitzer winner, Clybourne Park, which unfolds in the house purchased by the Youngers.)

If this robust production stops short of being a revelation on the level of producer Scott Rudin's Death of a Salesman revival two seasons ago, or the more lyrical Fences, it's nonetheless immensely satisfying. Hansberry's structure is exemplary, and her voice becomes increasingly impassioned as the characters' individual and shared dreams are exposed in all their fragility.

It's a minor quibble, but the one questionable choice here concerns the social contextualizing of Hansberry's work -- the Langston Hughes poem that yielded the title, A Dream Deferred, emblazoned across the curtain; the Playbill insert of a James Baldwin essay paying loving tribute to the playwright; the radio interview excerpted before the show, in which Hansberry discusses her aspirations for the American theater with Studs Terkel.

The extra-textual input seems intended to underline that we are seeing a Work of Historical Importance. But Hansberry's gorgeous play, with its breakthrough depiction of the internal and external struggles of mid-20th century black Americans, is a modern classic, eloquent enough to stand on its own, especially in such a fine production as this.

Venue: Ethel Barrymore Theatre, New York (runs through June 15)
Cast: Denzel Washington, Sophie Okonedo, Anika Noni Rose, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Bryce Clyde Jenkins, David Cromer, Jason Dirden, Sean Patrick Thomas, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Keith Eric Chapelle, Billy Eugene Jones
Director: Kenny Leon
Playwright: Lorraine Hansberry
Set designer: Mark Thompson
Costume designer: Ann Roth
Lighting designer: Brian MacDevitt
Sound designer: Scott Lehrer
Executive producers: Joey Parnes, S.D. Wagner, John Johnson
Presented by Scott Rudin, Roger Berlind, Eli Bush, Jon B. Platt, Scott M. Delman, Roy Furman, Stephanie P. McClelland, Ruth Hendel, Sonia Friedman/Tulchin Bartner, The Araca Group, Heni Koenigsberg, Daryl Roth, Joan Raffe & Jhett Tolentino