BWW Reviews: Kenny Leon's Sterling Second Go at A RAISIN IN THE SUN
Director Kenny Leon made his Broadway debut ten years ago with the first Main Stem revival of A Raisin In The Sun, and if he'd like to keep on mounting productions of Lorraine Hansberry's riveting classic every decade I'd be most happy to go see them all.
Denzel Washington, giving his finest New York stage performance since returning to Broadway as a Hollywood star, leads an exemplary company that gives the 55-year-old landmark drama a lively, endearing and emotion-pulling turn.
The text of Langston Hughes' 1951 poem, Harlem, that inspired the play's title, is projected onto the show curtain as the audience enters. An audio interview of the playwright by Studs Terkel, from the year it premiered, is heard as patrons are being seated. With the turbulent 1960s only months away, Hansberry describes how the most oppressed of any oppressed group are its women, warning that those who are twice oppressed are apt to become twice as militant.
Indeed, while Walter Lee Younger struggles through daily indignities, making his living as a chauffeur for a wealthy white man who would see him as interchangeable with any other Negro, he puts his own personal dreams for a better life above those of the three women with whom he shares a well-worn apartment on Chicago's south side. (Mark Thompson's realistic set is pushed far downstage to emphasize the cramped quarters.)
Though Washington is nearly 20 years older than the character's stated age of 40, he comfortably passes for around 50 in a robust and jaunty portrayal of the self-centered and immature Walter Lee.
There's a matter of $10,000, a whopping sum in 1959, that his mother, Lena (a commanding LaTanya Richardson Jackson), has inherited from her late husband. Lena wants to use the money to buy a family home, a dream fully supported by Walter Lee's overworked and underappreciated wife, Ruth (a haggard Sophie Okonedo, who displays traces of warmth when shown minimal attention), who would love to see her 10-year-old son (Bryce Clyde Jenkins) have a real bedroom instead of sleeping on the tattered sofa.
Walter Lee insists the money should go to his dream of owning a liquor store, a thought that repulses the devout Lena. Also repulsing Lena are the atheist views of her daughter, Beneatha (beautifully starry-eyed Anika Noni Rose), whose ambitions include a medical school education and a career that gives her the opportunity to travel the world and discover herself.
Though her family would like to see her marry the shallow, but well-off George (Jason Dirden), Beneatha prefers the company of Nigerian exchange student Joseph (charismatic Sean Patrick Thomas) who challenges her intellectually and inspires her to learn more of her heritage.
Excellent work is done by two notable actors taking on small roles. There's David Cromer as the community representative of the white neighborhood where Lena has put a down payment on a home, trying to buy her out with a hefty bribe, and Stephen McKinley Henderson, who has one quick scene delivering bad news of the big investment Walter Lee has been banking on.
Wonderfully moving and realistically humorous, this is a sterling production of an extraordinary play.