With his bravura performance, Denzel Washington shifts the balance of Lorraine Hansberry’s classic play, and he shifts it in the right direction
Writing about the 1961 film version, the great and often misguided Pauline Kael offered the opinion that “A Raisin in the Sun” shows how a black family can be just as boring as a white family. Too bad Kael didn’t live to see the current Broadway revival, which opened Thursday at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. The Younger family has grown claws, as if they’d been watching “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” over the past few decades to learn how to fight dirty.
And there’s something even more compelling about this revival under the no-prisoners-taken direction of Kenny Leon. With his bravura performance, Denzel Washington shifts the balance of Lorraine Hansberry’s classic play, and he shifts it in the right direction.
Years ago, I did an interview with Ossie Davis, who understudied Sidney Poitier in the original 1959 Broadway production, and later replaced him in “Raisin.” Davis said that white Broadway audiences “came to own the play, that Lorraine Hansberry wrote about a young black man’s rage. But what those audiences took comfort in was Mama’s control of her son’s rage. And that’s not the play Lorraine wrote.”
This “Raisin” is the “Raisin” Hansberry wrote. Washington, at age 59, is older than the typical Walter, but the actor looks and plays the role much younger than his years. He also plays it angry and dissolute and uncompromising, but with just enough of the big kid in him after all these years for Walter still to possess his dreams of independence and wealth. When his mother (LaTanya Richardson Jackson) shames him into doing the right thing, paving the way for the family’s move to Clybourne Park, Washington effectively turns that capitulation not into a surrender to his mother’s will but rather a threat to the white community leader: Those suburban bigots dare not disturb the peace of his family in their new home. Washington doesn’t let us forget the last line of Langston Hughes’s poem “A Dream Deferred.” This man still has plenty of potential to “explode,” and probably will.
Washington, with much help from Jackson, also tips the play away from the mother. Most actresses play Mama as a saint; Jackson makes her admirable but also exposes the character’s many sharp edges. Although still a strong pillar of the family, Mama’s a prickly old woman.
Granted, her son remains something of a child, but she never lets him forget it. There’s a need for this Mama to hang on to her superior position in the family: Even though they all live in a rental apartment, it’s her place — she makes clear one time too many — not theirs. She can’t tolerate the atheism of her daughter (that brilliant and eternal teenager Anika Noni Rose), an obvious stand-in for Hansberry. Mama’s slap of Beneatha has never been delivered with more cruelty.
And Mama’s overly theatrical use of her grandson (Bryce Clyde Jenkins) to shame Walter into not taking the white man’s money is, well, fraught. In fact, right before that moment arrives in “Raisin,” Leon has achieved such a perfect balance among his four leading actors that you’re left floundering (in a good way) as to which character’s dream for the future should be realized.
Sophie Okonedo‘s long-suffering wife Ruth is that fourth dreamer. You can taste her need to move out of that Chicago tenement, and even in the face of Washington big, showy performance, she matches him insult for hurtling insult. Their language is so tough; they know each other’s vulnerabilities and just where to strike to draw the most hurt. Did lead producer Scott Rudin bring in Edward Albee to make some adjustments in the script? No, that’s Hansberry’s play on the Ethel Barrymore stage.
Before the curtain goes up, the theater is alive with the sounds of a taped interview. It seems an unnecessary distraction at the time, but when the lights go down it suddenly becomes obvious that the voice belongs to Hansberry. What began as a minor irritation is a director’s inspired choice when the final curtain descends.