What is it about A Raisin in the Sun that causes tears every time? (Never bawling, funereal tears, but a lump-in-the-throat, emotional pinch that floods the eyes and brings teardrops to the verge.) As a Black man, maybe I take Walter Lee Younger’s stymied ambitions way too personally. As a race man, maybe the prejudices of the Clybourne Park welcoming committee make me wanna holler. As a lover not a fighter, maybe the idea of Beneatha and Asagai running away for the Nigerian sunset appeals to the expat in me. Whatever the reason, Broadway’s latest production—starring Denzel Washington, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Sophie Okonedo and Anika Noni Rose—has done it again.
As great an American play as any other ever offered on the so-called Great White Way, A Raisin in the Sun first opened in March 1959 as the first Broadway drama ever written by an African-American woman, the late Lorraine Hansberry (who passed at 34 of pancreatic cancer). The original featured Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee and Louis Gossett Jr., who all reprised their roles for the 1961 Hollywood feature film adaptation. Another stellar version appeared from director Bill Duke in 1989, starring Danny Glover and Esther Rolle.
This latest production—running at New York City’s Ethel Barrymore Theatre until June 15—hits all the familiar beats right on target, with snatches of Miles Davis music here and there. An audio interview with Hansberry runs in a loop while the audience takes their seats. Director Kenny Leon staged Raisin 10 years ago with Sean Combs in the lead role, which led to a Tony Award for Phylicia Rashad as matriarch Lena Younger. Puffy’s no great thespian, but the casting had logic to it because the through line from Walter Lee Younger’s striving hunger to Diddy’s hiphop-aspirational appetite is clear as day. (Catch the 2008 made-for-TV version if you haven’t.)
At 59, Denzel Washington sounds miscast as the 40-year-old (ironically named) Younger. In Hansberry’s notes for the original play, the character was an even younger 35. Let’s just say the frustrations and roadblocks in Walter Lee’s life have aged him prematurely.
Like a golden ticket to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, everyone in the Younger household waits impatiently for a $10,000 insurance check that could turn their lives around. Lena Younger dreams of buying a home in Chicago’s lily-White Clybourne Park. Her son Walter Lee wants to open a liquor store with entrepreneurial buddies and kiss his chauffeuring days goodbye. Little sister Beneatha has medical school—and beaus like Joseph Asagai and bourgeois George Murchison—on her mind. Walter Lee’s wife Ruth is pregnant with their second child, and considering the (1959) unthinkable option.
The litmus test for any Raisin production is, is it moving or not? Marital tensions flare between Denzel Washington’s Walter Lee and Sophie Okonedo’s Ruth with a true-to-life familiarity recognizable by anyone who’s walked down the aisle. Walter Lee’s hopes and dreams bubble and burst with as much heartbreaking tragedy under Washington’s portrayal as anyone else who’s played the role. Asagai (played by Sean Patrick Thomas of The District) bringing Beneatha back from the brink of despair after her brother squanders her tuition is a thing of beauty, as Hansberry intended.
Is A Raisin in the Sun v.2014 moving? Is it worth seeing one mo’ ’gain? Without a doubt.
Miles Marshall Lewis is the Arts & Culture Editor of EBONY.com. He’s also the Harlem-based author of Scars of the Soul Are Why Kids Wear Bandages When They Don’t Have Bruises, There’s a Riot Goin’ On and Irrésistible. Follow MML on Twitter at @furthermucker, and visit his personal blog, Furthermucker.