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A CurtainUp Review
A Raisin in the Sun

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
—The opening lines of Langston Hughes' "Harlem [2]" which inspired the title and theme of Lorraine Hansberry's groundbreaking 1956 play.
Sophie Okonedo and Denzel Washington with David Cromer, Bryce Clyde Jenkins, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, and Anika Noni Rose (Photo by Brigitte Lacombe)
More than half a century and many productions later we can still rejoice that Lorraine Hanserry didn't defer her dream of becoming a playwright. Seeing the latest revival of A Raisin in the Sun in the same theater where it premiered in 1959, it's plain to see that this wonderful play hasn't "dried up." In fact, it's more powerful than ever — that rare drama that brings together always relevant issues of intense family differences with issues of faith, racial and social identity. T

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.
Here are some notes for trivia fans:
The original Broadway cast featured a 32-year-old Sidney Poitier as Walter Lee, Ruby Dee as Ruth, Claudia McNeil as Lena and Diana Sands as Beneatha. They also appeared in the film version.

According to an Internet Movie Data Base background article, in the original Broadway version Diana Sands was not allowed to keep her hair from being, as Joseph Asagai put it, "mutilated." She was not considered attractive enough for the "natural" hairdo even though the change potently reinforced Asagai's point.

The play was also made into 1981 TV movie starring Danny Glover and a rarely produced musical.

A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry
Directed by Kenny Leon
Cast: Denzel Washington (Walter Lee Younger), Sophie Okonedo (Ruth Younger), Anika Noni Rose (Beneatha Younger), David Cromer (Karl Lindner), Bryce Clyde Jenkins (Travis Younger), Jason Dirden (George Murchison), Sean Patrick Thomas (Joseph Asagai), Keith Eric Chappelle and Billy Eugene Jones (Moving Men), Stephen McKinley Henderson (Bobo) and LaTanya Richardson Jackson (Lena Younger)
Scenic designer: Mark Thompson
Costume designer: Ann Roth
Lighting designer: Brian MacDevitt
Music curated by Branford Marsalis
Hair design: Mia M. Neal
Stage Manager: Narda E. Alcorn
Running Time: 2 hours 40 minutes.
Barrymore Theatre 243 W. 47th St.
: From 3/08/14; opening 4/03/13; closing 6/15/14
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