Upon entering the Ethel Barrymore theatre, director Kenny Leon puts up a most interesting preshow soundscape. It is an interview by famed radio star and writer Studs Terkel with Lorraine Hansberry, the young wunderkind who penned “A Raisin in the Sun.” Certainly, while other people waited patiently in their seats in the theatre, engaging in the powerful preshow ritual of parting ways with their cellphones for an hour, I could not get enough of Hansberry’s voice.
Hansberry has never stopped fascinating me, ever since I came in contact with her signature work while in college. To hear her voice in that near 45-minute interview is somewhat surreal.
While Denzel Washington receives above-the-title billing in the newest production of “Raisin,” which runs through June on Broadway, it is still Hansberry and her play that are truly the stars of the show. Listening to Hansberry speak on so many topics, and to hear her passionately speak about the need for cultural theatre experiences for kids all over the country so they don’t think Shakespeare was boring is profound stuff.
What is so wholly beautiful about this newest Broadway production is the fact it is an all-star cast in a no-frills production. This is theatre at its purest form – a great American play that functions on a singular mission – to tell a story.
This story, and the iconic lines, are familiar. The Younger family is awaiting a life insurance check for the passing of the family’s patriarch. Each child has a vision of where that money should go – Beneatha (Anika Noni Rose) has visions of performing surgeries as a doctor, while Walter Lee (Washington) dreams of opening up a liquor store, which would allow him to dish out pearls to his wife as if they were candy. But the matriarch Lena (Latanya Richardson Jackson) has another vision, one that will provide piece-of-mind for her beaten down family, a way to get out of a small place where the cockroaches refuse to die and only the fleetest of foot get into the common washroom before sunrise.
“Raisin’s” brilliance lies directly at the foot of Hansberry’s words. There is such pathos in the desperation of this family, one who has become all-consumed with this inheritance money. It certainly helps when you have some amazing actors translating the work.
Take Washington for example. There were two things that I was curious about when hearing of his taking on the role of the frustrated and fiery Walter. First of all, would his largeness and star power completely engulf the character, robbing it of its honesty? And secondly, as an actor in his late 50’s, would his interpretation feel out of range for a character that is in his mid to late-30’s?
Both were pointless concerns. Washington is probably blessed with the greatest genes in the history of civilization. His Walter Lee was primal in moments, dazzling in so many others. He was especially magical in his brilliant, yet pained speech about his dreams he shares with his son, as well as his inner-tortured soliloquy of letting the white neighbors drive him out of their new neighborhood.
These moments were iconic, yet his scenes where he had to be gentle were brilliant as well, aided with such precision and warmth by Sophie Okonedo, playing his wife Ruth. Both Walter and Ruth have hit an especially rough patch in their marriage, yet watching Walter sheepishly reach over and kiss Ruth during their reconciliation was such a perfect little vignette of what their marriage might have been before the stresses of life took their toll on this young couple.
Other performances were of the highest caliber. Jackson took full advantage of the fact that Lena is probably the most well-written of Hansberry’s memorable characters. Lena has the best laughs, the best insight, and Jackson masterfully played a character who is firm, yet lovable and memorable. Joseph Asagai (Sean Patrick Thomas) provided powerful insight into what divides two cultures whom, while both are black, see the world through very different lenses. And George Murchison (Jason Dirden), who condescendingly shares curtain times at New York City theatre productions, provided yet another perspective of the perils of assimilation, an issue Beneatha struggles with at various points in the story.
To say Hansberry was ahead of her time is an understatement of the highest order. “Raisin” premiered on Broadway a few months shy of her 29th birthday. Even more special, this new revival is being held in the same theatre as “Raisin’s” original Broadway premiere in 1959. And painfully, her full life ended much too soon, passing away in 1965, a few months shy of her 35th birthday.
Even though her life ended much too soon, her play lives forever, and her voice will never leave.
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
“A Raisin in the Sun” on Broadway
Starring Denzel Washington
Directed by Kenny Leon
The Word: Spectacular in its simplicity, this “Raisin” is pure bliss, with the words of Hansberry taking center stage.
Through June 15th (No extensions)
Running time – two hours, 40 minutes
with one intermission
The Ethel Barrymore Theatre
243 West 47th Street
New York, NY 10036
Tickets begin at $67
For tickets, call (800) BROADWAY or visit the official online ticket site here.