Denzel Washington’s rabid fans won’t be seeing their idol in this heart-stopping revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s ground-breaking 1959 play, “A Raisin in the Sun.” They’ll be seeing Walter Lee Younger, the scion of a hard-working black family who sees his dreams of success slipping away on the post-WWII racial battlefront of Chicago’s South Side. The performance is a personal triumph for Washington, who refrains from star-strutting to fold himself into a tight-knit ensemble of committed stage thesps who treat this revival like a labor of love.
“Raisin” made its way into the history books for very good reason when it had its Broadway premiere (in the same theater, let it be noted) more than 50 years ago. It was, after all, the first play by an African-American woman to be produced on Broadway. (The importance of that comes through loud and clear in a pre-curtain airing of the scribe’s well-known interview with Studs Terkel.) The play went on to win the New York Drama Critics Circle’s award for best play. And, as a work of sociologically astute drama, it presented a penetrating look into the lives of working-class black Americans at a time when this silent minority was finding its voice and beginning to ask for the hard-won rights and privileges it had been promised.
But it isn’t the historical value of Hansberry’s heartfelt family drama that is moving audiences to tears. It’s watching and sharing the hopes and dreams and heartaches of a multigenerational family — not unlike your own — struggling to hold itself together as the changing times are challenging all its traditional belief systems and core values.
When people think of “Raisin,” what quickly comes to mind is the dramatic scene in which Karl Lindner (in a precision-tooled perf only to be expected from director-thesp David Cromer), a weaselly emissary from a white neighborhood, appears at the Younger apartment (a rabbit warren of cramped, crowded, airless spaces on Mark Thompson’s realistic set) to present the family with a hefty bribe not to move into the house they have just bought. This, in turn, sets up the searing scene at the end of the show, played with great passion by Washington, in which Walter Lee Younger finally mans up to resolve the family crisis.
But “Raisin” is about a lot more than race relations in 1950s Chicago. It’s the very model of the modern well-made play, which means that every piece in its jigsaw plot locks into its central theme — the survival of the African-American family. As the title reference to Langston Hughes’ powerful poem pointedly tells us, the play is about dreams, the many deeply desired and often conflicting dreams that are flying around in this family, making everybody crazy.
Lena Younger, the formidable matriarch played by the formidable Latanya Richardson Jackson, dreams of moving the family into a real home — a place where her sickly little potted plant can put down roots and grow. Her grown-up child of a son, Walter Lee, desperately dreams of leaving his chauffeur’s job and opening a liquor store where he can put up his feet and do as white executives do — talk big and do nothing. Walter’s worn-out wife, Ruth (Sophie Okonedo, as utterly mesmerizing here as she was in “Hotel Rawanda”), dreams of seeing her petulant husband so happy that he’ll remember she exists.
Beneatha Younger, the family brain and Hansberry’s obvious stand-in, fares brilliantly in Anika Noni Rose’s delicious performance. Her dreams are very much those of her race and generation: a college education, a career in medicine, freedom to travel and choose an exciting husband, and — here’s what sets her aside from the rest of the more convention-bound Youngers — to explore her personal identity and African heritage. Although helmer Kenny Leon generally treats the material with respect and keeps it from slipping too obviously into sitcom farce, he lets loose (as does costumer Ann Roth) when Beneatha stuns the family with the African duds and folk dances she picked up from her Nigerian boyfriend.
The family’s tragedy is that everyone, even smart-as-a-whip Beneatha, is really, really slow (or, in Walter Lee’s case, too selfish) to see how achieving their own individual dreams might cost others theirs. In Playwriting 101 terms, that conflict is dramatized by the $10,000 insurance money that Mama Lena has inherited from her late husband, but everyone else — and especially grabby Walter Lee — has designs on.
The conflicts in the household are about power as much as money. True believer Lena slaps down Beneatha hard when she asserts the atheist creed she picked up at school. Walter Lee asserts his manhood by wringing out Ruth like a dishrag. But it does always get back to money, and the standoff between Lena and Walter Lee over that $10,000 is the elemental generational battle between parents, whose dominance means that everyone has to live by their old-fashioned values, and their impatient children, whose newfangled notions have yet to pass the test of time.
It’s an old battle, as old as the family structure itself. But Hansberry presents it with such clear-eyed intelligence and warm-hearted affection that you can’t help wishing the Youngers all the happiness they can hold.