By Phil Dorian
“A Raisin in the Sun” is set firmly in its time (1950s) and place (inner-city Chicago), but it transcends those restrictions in its depiction of a family in crisis.
The particular family is African-American (“colored” or “Negro” in context), and their plight centers around the opportunity to move from their run-down, poverty-stricken neighborhood to a wholly-white enclave across town.
Racial discrimination and black-on-black crime are essential plot points, but it is the intra-family conflicts that drive the play. Ten years to the month after its last revival, “Raisin” is back on Broadway, meticulously directed again by Kenny Leon and featuring Denzel Washington as Walter Lee Younger, the role created by Sidney Poitier in 1959.
“Raisin” was the first play by an African-American woman to be produced on Broadway. Lorraine Hansberry, who died in 1964 at age 34, was also the youngest American playwright and the first African-American to win the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best American Play. Her play has not only stood the test of time, it has become a revered classic.
The ’04 revival, featuring lesser actor Sean Combs (aka P. Diddy), shone a brilliant spotlight on the female characters. Phylicia Rashad and Audra McDonald won Tony Awards as Walter Lee’s mother and wife, and while Denzel is a far more accomplished actor than Diddy, it’s still clear to me that the play is about its women.
Walter’s mother Lena (Latanya Richardson Jackson) is the default head of the family, while Walter and his wife Ruth (Sophie Okonedo) toil for low wages as a chauffer and a domestic. Walter’s sister Beneatha (Anika Noni Rose), who dreams of becoming a doctor (Walter’s acknowledgment of that provides an exhilarating jolt), is juggling polar-opposite suitors. The three 1950s women represent the past, present and future of African-American women, and every nuance of their familial bonds is mined by these three marvelous actors.
Their common denominator is son/husband/brother Walter. If Poitier was the perfect Walter 55 years ago, Denzel is the perfect contemporary actor to not only re-explore Walter’s anxieties and frustrations, but also to bring an underserved audience into the theater.
The character is well suited to a star personality. Downtrodden and bitter at the start, Walter is buoyed by the prospect of converting his late father’s insurance payout into a business opportunity that everyone but him realizes is a pipe dream. Naively bilked out of the money, he hits rock bottom until, drawing on the experience, he “attains his manhood” in a scene that Denzel plays with quiet intensity.
The ending of Ms. Hansberry’s play is gratifying. While some questions remain unanswered, everyone is upbeat, including the audience that throngs the stage door area after every performance. Much has been said about the age difference between Walter Lee Younger and Denzel Washington. The character was written as mid-30s. In deference to Denzel’s age – he’s 59 – they’ve changed it to 40, an age that he realistically embodies. Yes, he’s older than the role. So what.
“Raisin in the Sun” at the Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th St., New York, N.Y., through June 15. For schedule and ticket info: Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200.