Monday, April 7, 2014

Denzel Washington Brings Another Powerful Performance to Broadway in A Raisin in the Sun

What becomes of a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
              -- Langston Hughes

Director Kenny Leon and his strong cast, headed by Denzel Washington, do a first-rate job of presenting the humor as well as drama in the well-paced Broadway revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s groundbreaking play, A Raisin in the Sun, now through June 15 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, where the original production opened in 1959. This tale of three generations of a struggling black family, the Youngers, on Chicago’s South Side in the 1950s, is still timely with its themes of the working class poor, racism, ethnic identity and the redeeming power of family love.

The longest held deferred dream in the play belongs to Lena, the family matriarch played by LaTanya Richardson Jackson. It was her great hope to raise her two children, Walter Lee (Washington, in photo) and Beneatha (an engaging Anika Noni Rose), in a house, but she and her husband could never make enough to get them out of the cramped, shabby two-bedroom, roach-infested apartment where she still lives, now as a widow, with her grown children and Walter Lee’s wife, Ruth (Sophie Okonedo, in photo), and their son, Travis (Bryce Clyde Jenkins). All share a bathroom with everyone else on the floor of this walk-up tenement. (Sets by Mark Thompson).

Lena sees a chance for her dream to finally be realized thanks to a $10,000 check from Walter senior’s life insurance policy. But she is not the only one with a dream. Walter Lee wants to quit his job as a chauffeur for a white man and open his own liquor store and Beneatha wants to go to medical school.

What will happen to this money is one of the dramas of the play. The other is the racism the family encounters after Lena puts a down payment on a house in the all-white Clybourne Park neighborhood. Together these will be the breaking and the making of Walter Lee.

When Raisin premiered in 1959, it was the first play written by an African-American woman to be produced on Broadway. Hansberry died five years later of cancer at the age of 34. Author James Baldwin, who said he had never seen so many black people in the theater, wrote about the play’s importance, that “never in the history of the American theater had so much of the truth of black people’s lives been seen on the stage. Black people ignored the theater because the theater had always ignored them.”

But Hansberry captured the world as they knew it. Lena introduces the deferred dream theme early on, referring to her late husband: “Big Walter used to say, he’d get right wet in his eyes sometimes, lean his head back with the water standing in his eyes and say, ‘Seems like God didn’t see fit to give the black man nothing but dreams, but he did give us children to make them dreams seem worthwhile.'”

Unfortunately, Big Walter “just couldn’t never catch up with his dreams.”

Walter Lee shares this frustration. “Sometimes it’s like I can see the future stretched out in front of me, just plain as day. … Just waiting for me, a big, looming blank space, full of nothing. Just waiting for me.”

His obsession worries Lena. “You something new, boy. In my time we was worried about not being lynched and getting to the North if we could and to stay alive and still have a pinch of dignity too. … Now here come you and Beneatha talking ‘bout things we ain’t never even thought about hardly, me and your daddy. You ain’t satisfied or proud of nothing we done. I mean that you had a home; that we kept you out of trouble till you was grown; that you don’t have to ride to work on the back of nobody’s streetcar. You my children, but how different we done become.”

The world hasn’t become that different, though. As the family members are packing to move to their new home, they are visited by a representative of the Clybourne Park Improvement Association, Karl Lindner (David Cromer), who offers them money to stay away. He assures them “race prejudice simply doesn't enter into it,” but that people there believe “for the happiness of all concerned that our Negro families are happier when they live in their own communities.” Somewhat sadly he tells Walter Lee, “You just can’t force people to change their hearts, son.”

But the situations of the play do force Walter Lee to change his heart. Washington is at his best when he portrays a Walter Lee broken by his foolishness in losing most of the insurance money and the pain of his humiliation. The joking and occasional drunk Walter Lee of Act One is gone. Washington shows us a crushed Walter Lee and it is powerful. But he then creates a Walter Lee who rises to the challenge and leaves us cheering for his triumph.

The production also brings us plenty of comic scenes. Two of my favorites involve Ann Roth’s costumes. In one, Beneatha, inspired by her Nigerian friend Joseph Asagai (Sean Patrick Thomas), appears in colorful African dress and dances around the room. Rose is a joy to watch, as is Jackson when she models a gardening hat dripping in fake flowers given to her by Travis. Both actors are a delight in these scenes.

And all of the scenes are heightened by Branford Marsalis’s jazz and blues compositions that provide transition.

Robert Nemiroff, Hansberry’s husband and literary executor, wrote in 1988 about why plays like Raisin, which has been translated into more than 30 languages, continue to touch people, even if the circumstances portrayed have changed. “For at the deepest level it is not a specific situation but the human condition, human aspiration and human relationships — the persistence of dreams, of the bonds and conflicts between men and women, parents and children, old ways and new, and the endless struggle against human oppression, whatever form it may take, for individual fulfillment, recognition and liberation — that are at the heart of such plays,” he wrote. “It is not surprising therefore that in each generation we recognize ourselves in them anew.”

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