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‘Raisin’ gets its time in the sun again

Maya Phillips | 4/10/2014, 12:47 p.m.
Denzel Washington with cast members of “A Raisin in the Sun” during the curtain call on the night of its Broadway premiere Risasi Dais photo

To begin with, you’ve got Lorraine Hansberry’s great work, a Tony Award-winning play that became the first play written by a Black woman to premiere on Broadway. Then, on top of that, you’ve got a star-studded cast of actors led by none other than Denzel Washington. While the show is far from flawless, these features alone are enough to drive hordes of theater fans and Washington groupies to the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.

It’s been 45 years since Hansberry’s death and 55 years since “A Raisin in the Sun” first premiered on Broadway, but neither the playwright nor her work have been forgotten. In fact, this production feels like a commemoration of when Hansberry first brought a bit of Black America to the Great White Way. At the beginning of the show, the audience hears tidbits from an interview with Hansberry as she speaks about Broadway, and Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem,” from which Hansberry took the title of her play, is displayed on a screen for all to see. As Hughes asked in that poem, “What happens to a dream deferred?” and Hansberry tackles that question in the form of the Youngers, a proud, Black family living in Chicago’s South Side sometime between World War II and 1960.

Washington takes his fair share of applause as Walter Lee Younger, a Black Willy Loman with his eyes on the prize—the American Dream, imagined by him as a business deal with a shifty acquaintance. Academy Award nominee Sophie Okonedo makes her Broadway debut as Walter’s wife, Ruth; theater and film star Anika Noni Rose stars as Walter’s sister, Beneatha; and Latanya Richardson Jackson takes the stage as Lena Younger, the matriarch of the Younger family.

As can be expected, Washington is on his game as Walter, alternatively portraying a proud man who strives for success in the name of himself and of his family, and a sad, drunk, selfish man-child who is too steeped in denial and naivety to realize the truth of his circumstances. Still, the casting of 59-year-old Washington—who, admittedly, looks great for his age, but is a mature man nonetheless—seems a bit off, especially because of the dramatic age gap that creates between Walter and his college-aged sister. Okonedo provides an able performance as the wife who is trying so hard to find happiness and make her marriage work, and her sorrow and fragility is palpable at times, but her floundering attempts at a Chicago accent—or any accent even distinctly resembling those of her cast mates—are distracting at best.

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Kenny Leon, the director of “A Raisin in the Sun” posed with Mamie Hansberry (left), sister of Lorraine Hansberry, and Joi Gresham, director of the Lorraine Hansberry Literary Trust on Thursday night during the play’s premiere on Broadway.

Jackson has large shoes to fill as the Younger matriarch, and for the most part, she fills them well. Sure, sometimes she stumbles a bit and could show a bit more of the bravado and thunder befitting the character, but her Lena is still a figure to be reckoned with, as she tells her family what’s what with some stern death glances and a keen sense of comedic timing when it’s called for.

Rose is likeable as Beneatha, the self-righteous and pompous college girl who wants to become a doctor and is caught between two very different suitors, George Murchison (Jason Dirden) and Joseph Asagai (Sean Patrick Thomas). Representing two extremes of the Black experience in America, Murchison is the privileged, fully assimilated Black man, while Asagai is the African man who fully embraces his culture. Dirden and Thomas don’t get much stage time, but Dirden makes the most of his ridiculously entitled and pretentious character’s presence. Thomas, however, is painfully over the top as Asagai, really milking the African accent, accompanied with the same rhythmic inflection for every line and some stiff acting overall.

While this production—through the artful work of Washington, Okonedo and Jackson in particular—clearly dives into the drama of the material with an urgency and gravity owed to such a momentous work, it also takes brief moments of respite for a bit of comedy, whether it’s Walter dancing drunkenly on a table or a costumed Beneatha singing and dancing in celebration of her newly embraced African roots. Either way, the Youngers get the star treatment in this production, with a cast that will bring crowds and theater fans old and new to and the classic story that first brought Black America to the stage.

“A Raisin in the Sun” is now playing at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47 St., through June 15. For information or tickets, call 212-239-6200 or 212-239-6262 or visit www.telecharge.com or www.raisinbroadway.com.