Playgoers arriving at the Barrymore Theatre for the spectacular new revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun are greeted with voices and projected images, a mini crash course on the author, who was born in Chicago in 1930 and died of cancer at 34 on the night her second Broadway show, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, closed. It was Raisin, of course, that made history in 1959. Not only was it the first work by an African American woman to be presented on Broadway; it was a hit that made its beautiful, articulate author an instant icon and spokeswoman at the outset of the Civil Rights Movement.
Maybe we need the history lesson, maybe not. A Raisin in the Sun has a permanent place in the American repertory. The last Broadway production was just a decade ago, an all-star affair that featured Sean Combs (no Puffy, no Diddy in his Playbill listing) as Walter Lee Younger, the husband whose big plans are continually dashed no sooner than he has dreamed them up.
Is a decade too soon for another revival? That's a question for pedants. Great plays deserve to be mounted and remounted as often as the talent is there to breathe life into them, and with Denzel Washington as Walter for a new generation, A Raisin in the Sun breathes life aplenty.
Washington proved he was as comfortable on the stage as on screen four years ago in a revival of August Wilson’s Fences, when James Earl Jones’ titanic performance as sanitation man and ex-baseball player Troy Maxon still cast a long shadow. Washington had no trouble making the part his own.
The same is true here, under more demanding circumstances. Washington is considerably older than Hansberry’s turbulent hero, specified in the script as 35 and bumped up here to 40. Walter and his wife Ruth (Sophie Okonedo, in a smashing Broadway debut) live in a cramped, crummy flat with their son Travis, (Bryce Clyde Jenkins), Walter’s sister Beneatha (the reliably and wonderfully surprising Anika Noni Rose), who dreams of being a doctor, and their mother (LaTanya Richardson Jackson), who is about to come into some insurance money following the death of her husband.
As was the case in Fences, Washington exudes a special kind of star quality that manages to draw the light not only to himself but to his fellow players as well. You can’t take your eyes off of him, but you never lose sight of the others, especially in this perfectly cast production – which happens to have been staged by the same Kenny Leon who directed the revival with Combs.
This is, however, a very different show than the earlier one. Washington balances the ebullience of a man who dreams with the world-weariness of someone tired of seeing those dreams deferred, as Langston Hughes alluded to in the poem that gives the play its name. Walter is every bit as angry at the world as the Jimmy Porter of Look Back in Anger, as angry as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire – young men infuriated by a world in which the cards are eternally stacked against them and the house always wins.
Washington makes you feel, deeply, that terrifying, sad, inspired, hopeless, crushing, yet ultimately liberating mix of emotions through which Walter careers from one hour to the next, one day to the next. Leon undoubtedly guided him through the rehearsal process, but the result on stage is a performance of controlled exuberance and exuberant control. It’s masterful.