Lorraine Hansberry’s brilliantly wise 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun is a bright light on Broadway this spring at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on West 47th Street through June 15. Hansberry’s well-thought-out story is still sharp-witted and penetrating, set sometime between World War II and the late 1950s, about the turmoil in a black Chicago family – the Younger’s – who are striving to escape the tight confines of their lives as well as the cramped quarters of their ghetto South Side apartment.
Hansbury was 29 when A Raisin in the Sun opened in New York, and it was her first hit, playing for more than 530 performances. It won the Drama Critics Circle Award and toured the United States and many parts of the world. A movie version in which Sidney Poitier repeated his original stage role won a prize at the Cannes Festival. It was the first play written by a black woman to break through the Broadway barrier, and the most successful yet written by an African American playwright. It was a landmark.
Hansberry died five years later at 34. However, her former husband, the writer Robert Nemiroff, continued to promote and produce her work. When she was dying, her second play was on Broadway, The Sign in Sidney Burstein’s Window. Later, Nemiroff put together a 1969 off-Broadway revue of her letters, novels and plays, To Be Gifted and Black. He also got her allegorical play set in colonial Africa, Les Blancs, onto Broadway in 1970. A few years later a successful musical version of Raisin won a Tony award for Best Musical in 1973.
Ten years ago, the director of the current A Raisin in the Sun, Kenny Leon, assembled a starry cast to stage a revival of the play. With the singer Sean Combs, known better as P. Diddy, TV’s Phylicia Rashad and Broadway’s Audra McDonald, it was a huge success.
This time out, Leon does have a dazzling star – Denzel Washington – playing the role of Walter Lee Younger, the begrudged chauffeur, and has assembled around him a talented and gifted ensemble of actors. For me, the result is a much superior production of the play and a more forceful real look at Hansberry’s work.
Washington is an excellent stage actor, as he has shown on Broadway as Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and a Tony-winning performance as Troy Maxson in August Wilson’s Fences. Here, he becomes Walter Lee Younger, and though he is about 20 years older than the character is supposed to be, Washington, 59, is such a supple actor and gives such an affecting performance, he is always totally believable. His Walter Lee slowly grows into a man of maturity before our eyes. By his artistry – and the best of Washington’s acting is not any knack but a true art – he makes the playgoer feel in the marrow of his bones the profound anguish Walter Lee feels as he wrestles, blazes and rages for another life for himself and his family.
When the mother, Lena Younger (the fine Latanya Richardson Jackson) buys a house in Claybourne Park with her late husband’s $10,000 in insurance money, they soon discover it is an all-white neighborhood. They have to decide to take an offer by the only white character in the play, Karl Linder, played by the actor-director David Cromer, to sell and get out, or whether they are entitled to make their home where they choose. What is great about the play is that the Youngers choose to fight, even though the Civil Rights Act would not be passed until 1964. There are also artful performances by Walter’s beautiful and touching wife Ruth Younger (Sophie Okonedo) and his sister Beneatha (Anika Noni Rose), who represents the next generation and wants to be a doctor and his young son Travis (Bryce Clyde Jenkins).
When A Raisin in the Sun first debuted, it was a “social problem play” that presented a point of view that some audiences in those days didn’t admire. But it won over most playgoers because of Hansberry’s great art and humanity. She endowed the play with warm humor that had no resemblance to the old black vaudevillian stereotyped shows. From the fun and the feelings aroused by the decency of the people, Hansberry was able to keep the essentially serious theme of the play from ever being solemn. The Youngers loved, hated, bickered, quarreled and made up within the confines of their family life like everyone does.
The amount of good that A Raisin in the Sun did for the American play-going community cannot be estimated. As a person, Hansberry was obviously remarkable, and in the theater, she was a wonder, and still is.