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A CurtainUp Review
A Raisin in the Sun
By Elyse Sommer
Having seen Raisin a number of times I expected a nostalgic revisit but no surprises. After all, I knew how Walter Lee Younger's dream of becoming an entrepreneur turns into a pipe dream. And his dream destroying foolhardiness does enable his mother to declare that "he finally came into his manhood . . .kind of like a rainbow after the rain." Oh, and yes, I recognized that straggly little plant in the windowsill of the Younger's claustrophobic Chicago apartment as a familiar symbol.
But surprise, surprise. There wasn't a seen-that-been-there moment in the entire two hours and forty minutes. Kenny Leon, hasn't just remounted his 2004 revival with a new cast, but imbued this production's look and feel with new nuance that has it bursting with more emotional exuberance than than ever.
Bruce Norris's terrific 2012 Publitzer Prize winning postscript to the Younger Family's move to Clybourne Park (Clybourne Park Review ) , appearing the theater horizon between the 2004 and 2014 Raisin. . ., adds a soupçon of resonance and timeliness to seeing it again. So does having the cast headed by Denzel Washington. However, this isn't just another case of bottom line motivated movie star casting. As he did in August Wilson's Fences (review ) he again proves himself to be a charismatic actor with strong enough stage chops to navigate passion, pain and humor.
Despite his extensive stage experience, Washington's casting did cause as much buzz about his being too old for the part, as Sean Comb's lack of experience did in 2004. Though the line in the script in which he mentions his age has been changed to make him forty instead of thirty-five, that still makes Washington nineteen years older than the Walter Lee the playwright envisioned. I'll admit to some reservation, given my recollection of Samuel L. Jackson coming off as too old in Katori Hall's The Mountain Top (also directed by Mr. Leon). Fortunately Washington's age really doesn't matter. He's in great physical shape. Most importantly, he invests Walter Lee with all the energy and youthful restlessness and impatience this character calls for. At the same time he uses the age thing to deepen the the pain of never having a chance to realize a young man's dreams that is an all too universal echo of so many black men's lives.
But this is an old-fashioned kitchen sink drama in the best sense. That means a full contingent of actors (in this case, 9-- 11 if you count the two moving men who are credited in the program). Even the minor characters acquit themselves impressively as the central conflict about how the $10,000 check from the late Mr. Younger's insurance policy will be spent unfolds. And the actors playing the women who are essential to Walter Lee's "coming into his manhood" are a Wow!
Those voting for this season's best supporting role performance will be hard put to choose between Sophie Okonedo and Anika Noni Rose. Okonedo, best known for her role in the film Hotel Rwanda, is unforgettable in her Broadway debut as Walter Lee's wife Ruth who is torn between love for her husband and the reality of his unrealistic belief that investing that insurance money in a business with an unreliable friend. Okonedo's performance is a master class in acting even when not saying a word. Anika Noni Rose charms as Walter Lee's smart younger sister who's the play's stand-in for Hansberry, though her dream is to be a doctor. Her openness to new ideas and resilience is delightfully expressed when we see her dancing in a traditional African outfit.
Latanya Richardson Jackson embodies the deeply religious, strict but fiercely loving family matriarch. Even Stephen McKinley Henderson whose Bobo, makes just a cameo appearance is given a chance to demonstrate the complexities of life on display in this well-made play. The same is true for the slightly more visible roles of David Cromer as the "You People" spouting representative of the all-white Clybourne Park community; Sean Patrick Thomas and Jason Dirden as Beneatha's passionate Nigerian beau Joseph Asagi and her rich black boyfriend George Murchison.
Set designer Mark Thompson proves that you can create a rich visual image with a single set. The other designers round out the excellent production values and between scenes music courtesy of Branford Marsalis are perfect.
Unlike the original Broadway production which ran for 530 performances, you have only fourteen weeks to catch this one. Don't miss it.