Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th St.
In a Nutshell: If you grew up in the United States, chances are you read this play in school. The current Broadway production of Lorraine Hansberry’s much-reprised and greatly admired play is as fine a staging as you’re going to see. So don’t delay: the show closes on June 15.
5 Tony Nominations: Best Play Revival, Best Actress in a Play (LaTanya Richardson Jackson), Best Featured Actress in a Play (Sophie Okonedo, Anika Noni Rose), Best Director (Kenny Leon)
Lead Cast: Denzel Washington (Walter Lee Younger), LaTanya Richardson Jackson (Lena Younger), Sophie Okonedo (Ruth Younger), Anika Noni Rose (Beneatha Younger).
Background: A Raisin in the Sun is an “important” American play. It was the first play by an African-American woman to be produced on Broadway. At 29, Hansberry was also the youngest American playwright, the first black playwright, and only the fifth woman to receive the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play.
The Production: Before the curtain goes up, we see the following text projected on a scrim:
What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over—like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
Those lines, from the poem Harlem (Dream Deferred) by Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes, serve as a wonderful introduction to the play. They give us a framework in which to place the action that will unfold over the next 2 and 3/4 hours. Hughes wrote the poem in 1951, 8 years before A Raisin in the Sun first opened on Broadway. Reading the poem before the actors take the stage helps us understand why Hansberry used one of its lines as the title of her play, because A Raisin in the Sun is all about dreams (mostly unfilled)—along with family ties and the enduring, redemptive power of love.
The Plot: Three generations of the Younger family live in cramped conditions in a South Chicago apartment, “sometime between World War II and 1960.” The youngest member of the family, Travis, sleeps on a pullout couch in the living room. The action revolves around the imminent arrival of a large insurance check payable to the family matriarch, Lena Younger. Her son Walter Lee has big plans for the money. Tired of working as a chauffeur for a rich white man, he dreams of investing the money in a liquor store and becoming rich. His younger sister Beneatha dreams of attending medical school. His wife Ruth, who discovers she is pregnant with their second child, just wants Walter to drink less and become a better husband and father. It’s up to Mama Lena to decide how to use the money in a way that will best serve her family. At the end of the play, Walter, whom Lena has entrusted with most of the money, loses it to a swindler. Mama takes what’s left and buys a home for the family in a white neighborhood. So some dreams are fulfilled, others are not.
The Performances: In addition to its grand pedigree, Raisin is a very fine and enjoyable theatrical experience. (These two characteristics don’t always come together in a single work).
Each member of the cast turns in a fine performance. Although Denzel Washington comes to the play with the most star power, it’s the women who shine the brightest. All three of the female leads are nominated for Tonys, while Mr. Washington, who gives a good ensemble performance devoid of “star” showboating, was overlooked.
LaTanya Richardson Jackson does an especially terrific job. When I saw the production my feeling was, “Give LaTanya the Tony right now!” (We’ll find out if the Tony voters agree on June 8). She commanded the stage and touched my heart with her moving portrayal of a strong woman who has survived injustice and the death of her husband and who is determined to give the next generations a shot at a better life. British actress Sophie Okonedo and Tony winner Anika Noni Rose (Caroline, or Change) also give affecting performances as Ruth and Beneatha Younger, respectively. You can feel the weariness in Okonedo’s movements, as she tends to housekeeping chores and tries to just get through another hard day. And Rose brings Beneatha’s youthful exuberance, ambition, and self-centeredness to life.
However, Mr. Washington, 59 years old, is a bit long in the tooth to play Walter (who is supposed to be in his mid-30’s). And at 41, Anika Noni Rose (18 years younger than Washington) is also a bit old for her role of a young student, although she pulls it off pretty credibly. I sometimes found myself thinking that she was Walter’s daughter instead of his younger sister. But theatre is above all, a suspension of disbelief: Keep in mind that Ms. Richardson Jackson (aged 64) is in real life only 5 years older than her theatrical “son!”
- The original production of A Raisin in the Sun opened 55 years ago at the Barrymore, the same theatre as the current production.
- Although Lorraine Hansberry did not win a Pulitzer Prize for her groundbreaking play, a 2010 play by Bruce Norris, Clybourne Park, did. That play imagines events before and 50 years after the Younger family’s move to the predominately white neighborhood of Clybourne Park.
- A musical version of the play, Raisin, premiered on Broadway in 1973. The production won Tony Awards for Best Musical and Best Leading Actress in a Musical (Virginia Capers).
- LaTanya Richardson Jackson is married to actor Samuel L. Jackson. She stepped into the role of Lena Younger when Tony Award-winning actress Diahann Carroll withdrew from the production.
Ticket Info: You probably won’t find discount tickets for this show. According to the TKTS website, the show “never” appears at its discount ticket booth. There is no current offer listed at Playbill.com and there is no rush policy for this show. I would suggest going to the Barrymore box office and seeing what’s available. A Raisin in the Sun