Talk leading up to opening night of the latest Broadway revival of "A Raisin in the Sun" hinted at flaws — it was coming back too soon, a lead actress had to be replaced late, and Denzel Washington is just too old for it.
Turns out none of that matters: The show that opened Thursday night at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre is blistering, beautifully acted and superbly touching.
Set in 1950s Chicago, Lorraine Hansberry's play centers on the struggling Younger family, who anxiously await a $10,000 insurance check — and the ensuing squabbles over how to spend it. So many meaty subjects are here: assimilation, manhood, racism, classism, sexism and honor.
Director Kenny Leon gets a second bite of the apple — he also helmed the last Broadway version starring Sean Combs in 2004 — and offers a throbbing, vibrant production that is a match for this 55-year-old American masterpiece. There's real humor here, too, both physical and scripted.
Washington is startlingly good as Walter Lee Younger, the frustrated chauffeur and dreamer. He has the cadences and the trapped physicality in his bones — warm and loose until he's cold and volatile. Even his mother says, "Something eating you up like a crazy man."
The script says Washington is supposed to be 35 — the actor is 59 — but all that matters is a brilliant performance, funny and poignant. Watching him dance on a table while drunk and then, moments later, cover his head in awful shame is a reminder that this movie star is simply natural onstage.
LaTanya Richardson Jackson replaced Diahann Carroll as the matriarch Lena Younger during rehearsals but there's no denying Richardson Jackson's gravitational pull — she is a fearsome, God-fearing woman not shy about a slap or two if respect isn't shown. Richardson Jackson brings everything to the part: majesty, disappointment, hope and love.
One revelation is Sophie Okonedo, making her Broadway debut as Ruth Younger, Walter's wife. Her bone-weariness is palpable as she opens the show — she even irons and cooks real eggs — and the audience will be inclined to hiss when she's treated poorly by her husband. Watching Okonedo flower in happiness when her family's fortunes take a turn for the better makes your heart soar, too. "Goodbye, misery," she says. And you hope it's true.
Anika Noni Rose makes a wonderfully feisty Beneatha Younger and Sean Patrick Thomas, as one of her suitors, the charming Joseph Asagai, allows the undercurrent of tension in their world views to bubble wonderfully. David Cromer has the unenviable task of playing the bureaucratic white villain, Karl Lindner, but never makes his character cartoony.
Mark Thompson has set it all in an appropriately grim set, complete with grime on the often-slammed front door, sofa pillows that sag with unhappiness, and horrible wallpaper. You can feel the roaches even if you never see them.
It's all the stuff of standing ovations, and richly deserved. A superb ensemble led by an accomplished director has illuminated this rich, thoughtful work. Only one regret after watching it — this playwright's voice was cut off too soon. Hansberry died of cancer in 1965 at age 34. At least she left us this play.
Denzel Washington’s popularity makes the revival of “A Raisin in the Sun” a hot ticket, but there’s a better reason: He and the show are flat-out excellent.
Reprising Sidney Poitier’s role, Washington is stunning as the dreamer-schemer Walter Lee Younger, whose frustration throbs at the heart of an American classic that is as deeply humorous as it is affecting.
The Oscar and Tony winner squeezes this juicy role with all his might, yet also melds seamlessly with his fellow actors.
That’s the way it should be. The women in Walter Lee’s life — his mother Lena, wife Ruth and sister Beneatha — are just as integral to this story of three generations of black struggle.
Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 drama — enduring and solid as they come — took shape as the civil rights movement gained steam but was still uncertain.
Guided by director Kenny Leon, performances are natural and lived-in, giving the audience the feeling that they’re overhearing private conversations. But listening — and really heeding — is the point.
Leon forces us to use our ears. We sit in the dark just as the play is about to start and we hear a tape of Hansberry and Studs Terkel discussing her play and its still-relevant issues.
Lights come up and the sterling cast — principals and supporting actors — let “A Raisin in the Sun” speak for itself as it tackles timeless themes of race, God and roots.
The story spins around an inheritance of $10,000, or about $100,000 today. The money is willed to Lena (a wonderful LaTanya Richardson Jackson) by her late husband — and she plans to use it to move the whole family into a white suburb. But there are bumps along the way.
Jackson brings dignity, strength and laughter, while Anika Noni Rose charms with contagious exuberance as Beneatha, who wants to be a doctor and to learn more about her African heritage.
As Walter’s long-suffering wife, Ruth, the sublime Sophie Okonedo wears a haunted expression that conveys a world of ache. It’s almost a shock when she smiles.
Frustration adds years to anyone’s mug. So it’s no big deal that 59-year-old Washington is two decades older than Walter Lee. Like a walking mood ring, Washington’s performance registers the colors of joy, despair, fury and determination.
As the play ends, streaks of sky crack through apartment walls. Those patches of blue might hint at hope. Or maybe bright spots that hover out of reach.
Such uncertainty makes Hansberry’s smart and discomforting drama as relevant and resonant as today’s headlines.
"A Raisin in the Sun" endures for good reason. Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play — the first by a black woman on Broadway — features several meaty roles and enough dramatic momentum to keep audiences on the edge of their seats.
No wonder stars are drawn to this classic, even when they aren’t necessarily right for it. Ten years ago, Sean Combs (a k a Puff Daddy) picked “Raisin” for his Broadway debut.
Now it’s Denzel Washington who’s the driving force behind this latest revival. Some wondered whether the 59-year-old was too ripe for Walter Lee Younger, a chauffeur in his mid-30s (amped to 40 in this version, to lessen the gap).
Well, Washington’s certainly believable.
More important, as he proved a few years ago in “Fences,” the star is a terrific team player who thrives among other great actors.
As a result, this first-rate production — efficiently directed, like the 2004 one, by Kenny Leon — is a Broadway bull’s-eye. It captures the play’s passion, pathos and intelligence, without stinting on Hansberry’s dry humor.
A genuine theatrical animal, Washington is very much at ease here. He prowls the stage as a man who dreams of escaping the Chicago “beat-up hole” he shares with his extended family. Walter has his eye on the $10,000 insurance payment his mother, Lena (LaTanya Richardson Jackson), received after his father’s death — enough to go in on a liquor-store deal with some friends.
Lena doesn’t see it that way. For starters, she’s keen to help Walter’s younger sister, Beneatha (Anika Noni Rose), pay for medical school.
But what Lena really wants is to put a down payment on a real house — which happens to be in a white neighborhood.
The play has a few dated elements, but mostly it remains uncommonly effective. Hansberry packs in a lot of issues without being didactic: The plot is driven by the characters and their choices.
And the cast makes the most of the opportunity.
In her Broadway debut, Sophie Okonedo (“Hotel Rwanda”) is deceptively subdued as Walter’s wife, Ruth, who embodies the bone-breaking hardship of poverty. Rose (“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”) has a luminous energy as Beneatha, who wants to better herself without being accused of being an “assimilationist.”
And Jackson steps away from the long shadow cast by her husband, Samuel L., portraying a woman who just won’t give up on her family or her principles — watch the way she puts the atheist Beneatha in her place, making her repeat, “In my mother’s house, there is still God.”
With a production of this quality, nobody will grumble about “vanity project” this or “star vehicle” that: Like the Youngers, the show makes its case loud and proud.
The spark of rebellion, the kind that makes a man stand up and fight, has almost been extinguished in Walter Lee Younger.
As portrayed by Denzel Washington in Kenny Leon’s disarmingly relaxed revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” — which opened on Thursday night at the Ethel Barrymore Theater — Walter appears worn down, worn out and about ready to crawl into bed for good. Frankly, he looks a whole lot older than you probably remember him.
That’s partly because, at 59, Mr. Washington, the much laureled movie star, is about a quarter of a century older than the character he is playing, at least as written. (This production bumps Walter’s age up to 40 from 35.) But it’s also because, as this production of “Raisin” makes clearer than any I’ve seen before, Walter inhabits a world that ages men like him fast.
Listen to how his mama, Lena (LaTanya Richardson Jackson), describes her late husband’s existence: “I seen him, night after night, come in, and look at that rug, and then look at me, the red showing in his eyes, the veins moving in his head. I seen him grow thin and old before he was 40, working and working like somebody’s horse.”
In this engrossingly acted version of Hansberry’s epochal 1959 portrait of an African-American family, Walter is all too clearly his father’s son. Lena may tell him, shaking her head, that he is “something new, boy.” But you know that her great fear is that he is not. Small wonder she shows such smothering protectiveness to Walter’s 11-year-old son, Travis (Bryce Clyde Jenkins).
A claustrophobic fatigue pervades the cramped, South Side Chicago apartment in which “A Raisin in the Sun” is set. And despite its often easygoing tone, a happy ending feels far from guaranteed. As designed by Mark Thompson, the Youngers’ living room cum kitchen is a narrow corridor that keeps its three generations of inhabitants in close, erosive proximity.
The production begins with a searing vision of bone-weariness. Ruth Younger (Sophie Okonedo), Walter’s wife, stands frozen center stage in a bathrobe, amid sallow morning light. Her face is harrowed, and her arms are braced against the kitchen counter in what is almost a crucifix position. She is trying to find the strength to get through another day.
Mr. Leon relaxes that initial tautness for the scene that follows, in which the Youngers — who also include Walter’s sister, Beneatha (a first-rate Anika Noni Rose), a pre-med student — go through their usual morning rituals. And the play as a whole has a genial, conversational quality; it always holds you, but without trying to shake you.
Still, that opening scene strikes a note that will resonate. Exhaustion is pulling at the Youngers like a dangerous force of gravity. As Hansberry puts it in her stage directions, “Weariness has, in fact, won in this room.”
That the above-the-title star of “Raisin” also at first seems to embody this quality may startle his fans. On screen (and in the 2010 Broadway production of “Fences”), Mr. Washington has shown himself a master of a commanding, combustible stillness that whispers of explosions to come.
Hansberry’s script describes Walter as “as a lean, intense young man,” who is “inclined to quick nervous movements and erratic speech habit.” That’s certainly the impression that Sidney Poitier, who created the role on stage, gives in the 1961 film version. Even Sean Combs (a.k.a. P. Diddy), the uneasy star of the 2004 Broadway revival, evoked some of that spasmodic energy.
Yet Mr. Washington’s more laid-back approach has a persuasive emotional logic, and it adds a different kind of suspense to “Raisin.” As the play tells its familiar story of the Youngers’ attempts to leave the South Side for the suburbs, with the life insurance money left by Lena’s husband, we’re less worried that Walter is going to erupt into violence than sink into stasis, dragging his family down with him.
This interpretation makes Walter less the coiled center of “Raisin” than usual, and I think it helps justify the return of Mr. Leon — who also directed the 2004 revival — to a much-performed play after only a decade. (It’s also worth remembering that in the intervening years, Broadway has seen Bruce Norris’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Clybourne Park,” an inventive riff on “Raisin.”)
This “Raisin” feels far more of a whole than Mr. Leon’s earlier production (which featured Tony-winning work from Phylicia Rashad and Audra McDonald). Despite the central presence of a movie megastar, the 2014 “Raisin” has a welcome egalitarianism. It’s a bona fide ensemble piece, in which we’re newly and acutely aware of the dynamics that define the Youngers.
We’re allowed to get to know the family without having to squint to see the real people behind the social archetypes. And a drama often presented as something monumental, to be approached with awe and piety, becomes refreshingly accessible.
If this interpretation lacks the hot molten urgency my ideal “Raisin” would possess, it also feels less like a period piece than any I’ve seen. Despite the play’s old-fashioned structure and sentimentality, as we watch Mr. Leon’s production, we feel it is happening in the present tense, in our own world of recessionary anxieties.
Ms. Jackson’s Lena, for example, is not the customary tower of saintly strength. She can be a captious and irritable mother-in-law to Ruth, and you feel the friction between the dominating women in Walter’s life. The beautiful Ms. Okonedo (an Oscar nominee for “Hotel Rwanda”) offers us a more patently fragile, breakable Ruth than usual.
There is also, however, a real sensuality here. Mr. Washington’s performance allows us to grasp the boyish charm that first won Ruth. You also sense the sexual charge that still flickers for this long-married couple. And there’s a marvelous scene of near-coitus interruptus in which a drunken Walter and a wistful Ruth remember the hot love that was — and which their current living conditions seldom allow them to act on.
Even within an eminent cast — which also includes the theater director David Cromer (!) as the sole (and very officious) white character and the August Wilson stalwart Stephen McKinley Henderson — Ms. Rose stands out as a revelatory Beneatha. This strutting, endearingly affected young woman is torn between two very different suitors (the Nigerian student played by the excellent Sean Patrick Thomas and the assimilationist rich boy portrayed by Jason Dirden).
Hansberry admitted in interviews that the self-consciously intellectual Beneatha was partly a satirical self-portrait. And Ms. Rose (a Tony winner for “Caroline, or Change”) gives us the natural grace and awkwardness of a vital young mind trying on new ideas to see if they fit.
This production brims with empathy for all the Youngers, but it also sees their faults clearly. And in the evolution of Beneatha — who begins with all the judgmental arrogance of youth — we catch an invaluable glimmer of the playwright’s sensibility in the making.
Beneatha presumably goes on to become a doctor. We know what Hansberry became. As this estimable production reminds us, we have good reason to be grateful she made the choice she did.
Remember the questions raised about Denzel Washington being too old to play Walter Lee Younger and about "A Raisin in the Sun" being too recently revived in a stratospherically high-profile production starring Sean Combs in 2004?
Forget all that. Forget any and all reservations, except the kind that are so hard to get for director Kenny Leon's shattering revival of Lorraine Hansberry's seminal 1959 drama about a struggling black family in Chicago.
Washington, 59, is magnificent -- disaffected, exuberant, heart-shredding -- as the character Sidney Poitier created on Broadway when just 32. Yes, this Walter Lee now says he is 40, not 35, in one of his raw and bruised laments about a life that never really began. But the numbers mean nothing in this devastating portrayal, except to deepen it.
The actor, at least as impressive as he was in his 2010 Tony-winning performance in "Fences," uses the age to make Walter Lee's dream of using his mother's insurance money to buy a liquor store even more desperate. This really feels like a last chance for a man who has been stunted, with his wife (Sophie Okonedo) and his young son (Bryce Clyde Jenkins), in his mother's tiny apartment (by designer Mark Thompson) for too long. Washington lets us see both the cocky child and the empty man in his face. He seems too big for the space, as if he has so much bottled energy inside that he doesn't know where to put it.
This time, Leon, who directed Combs on Broadway and in the 2008 ABC film of the play, doesn't have to balance an otherwise stellar cast with a hip-hop mogul in his theater debut. The expert ensemble now feels like a family, full of the lived-in nuance that can shift with just a gesture.
Okonedo ("Hotel Rwanda") has a face that finds wondrous layers as Ruth, Walter Lee's nearly broken wife. Anika Noni Rose captures the bright ambition of Walter Lee's sister, while Ann Roth's perceptive costumes make sure we notice how the favored child is spoiled. LaTanya Richardson Jackson, who stepped into the production when Diahann Carroll found rehearsals too strenuous, makes a loving, if not multifaceted, mother.
Hansberry, the first black woman playwright to have a play produced on Broadway, understood the back-to-Africa movement and the underside of assimilation, and had few illusions about the perils of moving to a middle-class neighborhood. "Raisin" is famously inspired by Langston Hughes' poem about a "dream deferred. . . . Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?" With Washington in the center, this one just feels ripe.
When A Raisin in the Sun was last produced on Broadway in 2004, it was a vehicle for Sean Combs, the multitasking celebrity better known as, variously, Puff Daddy, P. Diddy and just plain Diddy. Though director Kenny Leon surrounded him with accomplished actors, Combs proved rather less adept at animating a flesh-and-blood character as he was at juggling stage names.
Ah, what a difference 10 years and a worthy leading man can make. The new Raisin (* * * * out of four) that opened Thursday at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre is also helmed by Leon, but it stars a riveting Denzel Washington, leading a flawless cast with his best work to date on the Main Stem.
The result is a production that, considered alongside its predecessor, is nothing short of revelatory. Where Leon's last Raisin felt stiff and curiously dated, this time he and his company have reclaimed Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 play as an American classic, one that both captures a distinct time in our history and carries an enduring relevance and resonance.
It wasn't a given that this would be the case. At 59, Washington is nearly a quarter century older than protagonist Walter Lee Younger is in the original text. Five years have been added to the character's age, so that he's now 40, though he faces the same challenges: a job he loathes (as a chauffeur), a frustrated wife, a claustrophobic living arrangement and the expectations of a devoted but disappointed mother and a world that doesn't exactly encourage the dreams of black men.
Exuding the physical energy of a man, well, 20 years his junior, Washington captures not only Walter Lee's restless spirit but also the selfishness and immaturity that have long vexed his wife, Ruth, and mom, Lena. When things are looking up for this Walter Lee, his enthusiasm is almost boyish; when they're not, we feel the full weight of his fury and encroaching bitterness.
It's a vibrant, funny, searing performance, and it's matched fully by those of Washington's co-stars. LaTanya Richardson Jackson, who stepped into the role of Lena after Diahann Carroll withdrew from the production in February, doesn't miss a beat in showing us the wit and grit that have sustained this matriarch. Sophie Okonedo, likewise, conveys Ruth's weariness and resilience to heart-wrenching effect.
As Walter Lee's younger sister, Beneatha, a college student on her own quest for self-actualization, the sublime Anika Noni Rose defies gravity as handily as Washington does — and manages a delightful chemistry with the superb, sexy Sean Patrick Thomas, cast as Beneatha's Nigerian suitor, Joseph Asagai.
Director/actor David Cromer, whose insightful stagings of other beloved American plays have earned wide acclaim, has a biting turn as Karl Lindner, a genteel bigot who poses a fresh threat to the Youngers' aspirations. It's tempting to imagine what Cromer's own vision for Raisin might be — though he'd be hard-pressed to top the vitality and potency of this production.
Denzel Washington’s rabid fans won’t be seeing their idol in this heart-stopping revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s ground-breaking 1959 play, “A Raisin in the Sun.” They’ll be seeing Walter Lee Younger, the scion of a hard-working black family who sees his dreams of success slipping away on the post-WWII racial battlefront of Chicago’s South Side. The performance is a personal triumph for Washington, who refrains from star-strutting to fold himself into a tight-knit ensemble of committed stage thesps who treat this revival like a labor of love.
“Raisin” made its way into the history books for very good reason when it had its Broadway premiere (in the same theater, let it be noted) more than 50 years ago. It was, after all, the first play by an African-American woman to be produced on Broadway. (The importance of that comes through loud and clear in a pre-curtain airing of the scribe’s well-known interview with Studs Terkel.) The play went on to win the New York Drama Critics Circle’s award for best play. And, as a work of sociologically astute drama, it presented a penetrating look into the lives of working-class black Americans at a time when this silent minority was finding its voice and beginning to ask for the hard-won rights and privileges it had been promised.
But it isn’t the historical value of Hansberry’s heartfelt family drama that is moving audiences to tears. It’s watching and sharing the hopes and dreams and heartaches of a multigenerational family — not unlike your own — struggling to hold itself together as the changing times are challenging all its traditional belief systems and core values.
When people think of “Raisin,” what quickly comes to mind is the dramatic scene in which Karl Lindner (in a precision-tooled perf only to be expected from director-thesp David Cromer), a weaselly emissary from a white neighborhood, appears at the Younger apartment (a rabbit warren of cramped, crowded, airless spaces on Mark Thompson’s realistic set) to present the family with a hefty bribe not to move into the house they have just bought. This, in turn, sets up the searing scene at the end of the show, played with great passion by Washington, in which Walter Lee Younger finally mans up to resolve the family crisis.
But “Raisin” is about a lot more than race relations in 1950s Chicago. It’s the very model of the modern well-made play, which means that every piece in its jigsaw plot locks into its central theme — the survival of the African-American family. As the title reference to Langston Hughes’ powerful poem pointedly tells us, the play is about dreams, the many deeply desired and often conflicting dreams that are flying around in this family, making everybody crazy.
Lena Younger, the formidable matriarch played by the formidable Latanya Richardson Jackson, dreams of moving the family into a real home — a place where her sickly little potted plant can put down roots and grow. Her grown-up child of a son, Walter Lee, desperately dreams of leaving his chauffeur’s job and opening a liquor store where he can put up his feet and do as white executives do — talk big and do nothing. Walter’s worn-out wife, Ruth (Sophie Okonedo, as utterly mesmerizing here as she was in ”Hotel Rawanda”), dreams of seeing her petulant husband so happy that he’ll remember she exists.
Beneatha Younger, the family brain and Hansberry’s obvious stand-in, fares brilliantly in Anika Noni Rose’s delicious performance. Her dreams are very much those of her race and generation: a college education, a career in medicine, freedom to travel and choose an exciting husband, and — here’s what sets her aside from the rest of the more convention-bound Youngers — to explore her personal identity and African heritage. Although helmer Kenny Leon generally treats the material with respect and keeps it from slipping too obviously into sitcom farce, he lets loose (as does costumer Ann Roth) when Beneatha stuns the family with the African duds and folk dances she picked up from her Nigerian boyfriend.
The family’s tragedy is that everyone, even smart-as-a-whip Beneatha, is really, really slow (or, in Walter Lee’s case, too selfish) to see how achieving their own individual dreams might cost others theirs. In Playwriting 101 terms, that conflict is dramatized by the $10,000 insurance money that Mama Lena has inherited from her late husband, but everyone else — and especially grabby Walter Lee — has designs on.
The conflicts in the household are about power as much as money. True believer Lena slaps down Beneatha hard when she asserts the atheist creed she picked up at school. Walter Lee asserts his manhood by wringing out Ruth like a dishrag. But it does always get back to money, and the standoff between Lena and Walter Lee over that $10,000 is the elemental generational battle between parents, whose dominance means that everyone has to live by their old-fashioned values, and their impatient children, whose newfangled notions have yet to pass the test of time.
It’s an old battle, as old as the family structure itself. But Hansberry presents it with such clear-eyed intelligence and warm-hearted affection that you can’t help wishing the Youngers all the happiness they can hold.