NEW YORK–After a lukewarm stab at “A Raisin in the Sun” a decade ago, director Kenny Leon has returned to Lorraine Hansberry’s definitive story of African-American aspiration with a potent new Broadway revival starring Denzel Washington and Anika Noni Rose that reaffirms its place in the pantheon of great American drama.
In his second crack at Hansberry’s 1959 masterwork–a dry-eyed examination of the fissures in a poor Chicago family aching to escape the reminders of want in their cramped, tenement life–Leon in concert with his cast finds the driving rhythm of bitterness that suffuses the work and in particular, the character of Walter Lee Younger. Washington is, in fact, older than Younger by a couple of decades. Nevertheless, the actor gives a sterling account of Walter Lee’s careless sourness, an aura of self-defeat that renders utterly credible the decision he makes that all but scuttles the family’s rise to middle class security.
Rose, as his younger sister Beneatha, a pre-med student harboring a precocious interest in the Afrocentrism movement, is splendid here, infusing the character with the élan and self-confidence–tinged with arrogance–befitting a new generation coming of age. Sophie Okonedo, a British actress best known for her Oscar-nominated role in the 2004 movie “Hotel Rwanda,” offers up a deeply affecting Broadway debut as Ruth, Walter Lee’s exhausted wife. And Latanya Richardson Jackson–who replaced Diahann Carroll during rehearsals–imposes a welcome restraint on her interpretation of family matriarch Lena, an old woman leery of both of her children’s willfulness but determined not to give up on even the less dependable of them.
Via these four performances Leon builds a far more satisfying production than on the occasion of his last Broadway encounter with the play, when recording artist/designer/dabbling actor Sean Combs played Walter Lee and upset the balance of the play. (Sanaa Lathan, Audra McDonald and Phylicia Rashad were Combs’s co-stars.) This new production, fortified by strong support from Sean Patrick Thomas as Rose’s Nigerian suitor and David Cromer as a loathsome emissary from the Youngers’ would-be white suburban neighbors, banishes the bad taste left by the 2004 revival.
Hansberry’s expert orchestration of events takes us up and down the scales of hope, as the family savors the arrival in the mail of its long-awaited salvation: a $10,000 check, the payout from Lena’s recently-deceased husband’s life insurance policy. Walter Lee, who works as a chauffeur for a rich Chicago family, hopes to invest the money in a liquor store. But sensible, God-fearing Lena confounds him by using part of it as down payment on a house in leafy Clybourne Park. (If that rings a bell, it may be because playwright Bruce Norris took as inspiration for his Pulitzer Prize winning play of that title Hansberry’s play, resulting in his story of what happened, then and now, to the house the Youngers bought.) The fate of the rest of the money–after Lena, taking one last leap of faith, gives it to Walter Lee–propels the drama to the precipice of tragedy.
“A Raisin in the Sun” is such a rewardingly well-constructed piece of theater that–when performed this expertly–we feel each crest and dip in the Youngers’ road as fervently as they do. The winning texture of the evening depends, too, on our firm belief in the family’s collective nerves having been rubbed raw by everyday struggle, a kind of dulling, omnipresent sense of drudgery and disappointment. This idea is illustrated emphatically in Mark Thompson’s design of the Youngers’ dingy, narrow flat, which is pushed so far downstage it all but hangs over our laps. It’s reflected in the bone-weary countenance, too, of Okonedo. And it’s embodied successfully in Washington’s performance–for me, as good as his Troy Maxson in Leon’s 2010 revival of August Wilson’s “Fences.”
Washington is the master of the proud loser: his Walter Lee walks a careful line between redeemable fool and malicious screwup. The performance is at its absolute best when Walter Lee is in his cups and letting the bile flow. And Okonedo, Rose and Richardson all inject such persuasive vibrancy into their portrayals that you not only root for the women to bring him back from the brink, you also feel downright exultant when that’s what’s accomplished.
A Raisin in the Sun, by Lorraine Hansberry. Directed by Kenny Leon. Set, Mark Thompson; costumes, Ann Roth; lighting, Brian MacDevitt; sound, Scott Lehrer; music curation, Branford Marsalis; hair, Mia M. Neal. With Jason Dirden, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Bryce Clyde Jenkins. About 2 hours 40 minutes. At Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th St., New York. Visit www.telecharge.com or call 212-239-6200.