When this Lorraine Hansberry drama first appeared on Broadway in 1959 it created a stir, for it was the first play by an African-American woman to be produced on the main stem. Later that season Ms. Hansberry became the youngest American playwright, the fifth woman and the first African-American to win the Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play. It was a commercial hit, piling up 576 performances, greatly furthering the careers of Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Diana Sands, Louis Gossett and Claudia McNeil. I still vividly remember my own reaction to it, and to the powerful performances that presented it so well.
Again, it created some talk during a 3 month revival in 2004 when Sean Combs (famous as “P.Diddy” and “Puff Daddy”) brought along Phylisha Rashad and Audra McDonald to support him. The play stood up, but the hot topic was that Mr. Combs could ACT. Once that was established, he pulled up stakes and folded the tent after 88 performances, so not many people had a chance to chatter about the play itself.
Now along comes major movie star Denzel Washington who, at 59, sounded too old to play Walter Lee Younger, who is described as 35 years old in the original text. They’ve changed that to 40 in this production, but none of that matters. For Mr. Washington is such an accomplished actor he could have played Walter Lee at any age and still made us understand him, made us feel his frustration, share his rage, root for him all the way. Just as he did with the revival of Fences when he made the role James Earl Jones had created into his very own, so does he add his own mark to the deserved status of Sidney Poitier’s “Walter Lee Younger”.
And under the direction of Kenny Leon, Washington is not only the star, but also a member of a brilliant company without a false note in it. Latanya Richardson Jackson makes Mama a whole human being, stubborn, resolute, but ten minutes alone with her makes it clear her “Lena” is a Mother for all seasons. Sophie Okonedo’s “Ruth”, is a grounded and devoted wife to Walter Lee. Anika Noni Rose is his free spirited, ambitious younger sister Beneatha, determined to become a doctor, counting on financial help from her Mother who is about to receive $10,000 Insurance money from the death of the elder Mr. Younger. Mother intends to help that happen, but she is determined that the bulk of the money will go into making possible the purchase of a larger house, something she and her husband had dreamed of providing during the earlier years of their marriage.
Walter has another idea, one which sustains him through the frustrations of being a rich man’s chauffeur, with no hope for growth in his future. He is determined to go “the white man’s way”, to invest in a liquor store which he’s convinced is the road to a secure and prosperous future. The quality of this cast trickles down to the estimable Stephen McKinley Henderson as “Bobo”, a one-scene character who changes the entire direction of the plot. Mr Henderson, who was so effective working a larger role with Denzel Washington in Fences, confirms that this production was cast with a very fine tooth comb.
A tale of fiscal conflict, like this, could have supported a soap opera, one in which family differences led from one cliffhanger to another, keeping the story alive and kicking almost indefinitely. But Ms. Hansberry knows her people, and she takes her time to get down and dirty with all of them. Walter Lee’s drive to earn the self-respect he lacks, Beneatha’s militant disdain for the members of her own family who crave assimilation into the “American way”, which fuels her attraction to a Nigerian black man who wants to take her back to Africa to make a new life there; all of these characters are written and played very specifically and as a result, they build this play into a drama of great significance.
It’s Ibsen and Strindberg and O’Neill territory, but Ms. Hansberry also favors pop theatre, so she sticks closer to the more commercial playwrights Lillian Hellman (The Little Foxes, The Children’s Hour), William Inge (Bus Stop, Picnic), James Gow and Arnaud D’ussault (Deep Are The Roots, Tomorrow the World) and cooks up a play that is rich, flavorful and moving. Personally, I quibble somewhat at the turnabout in the last moments, but it undoubtedly added months to the popular appeal of the play, and she does a fine job of explaining, if not justifying her choice of ending this chapter in the story of the Youngers.
This is a fine and important play, a useful tool in presenting a very real part of our nation’s history in a clear and urgent voice, elevated to an even higher plane by a virtuoso company of actors.
A Raisin in the Sun is onstage at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street, New York, NY.
Details and tickets
Richard Seff, Broadway performer, agent, playwright, librettist, columnist adds novelist to his string of accomplishments, with the publication of his first novel, TAKE A GIANT STEP. His first book, Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrates his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes. Both books are available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
He has also written the book to SHINE! The Horatio Alger Musical which was a triple prize winner at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF).
Each year, Actors Equity recognizes the year’s most outstanding supporting player with, appropriately enough, the Richard Seff Award