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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
As a busy but often disappointing season is moving into the final stretch, I've had the pleasure of spending two succeeding Friday evenings seeing a pair of still powerful and well staged revivals. Both, Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart and Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin In the Sun, played to houses packed with theater goers too enthusiastic to hold their applause until the curtain calls. Those curtain calls came after three hours that seemed to go by faster than many short attention span geared ninety-minute plays. No wonder. Each production is the theatrical equivalents of a finely aged wine in a new bottle.
Almost half a century has passed since A Raisin In the Sun broke ground as the first Broadway play by an African-American woman, directed by an African-American director (Lloyd Richards). The barriers standing between poor, hard-working families like the Youngers and their dreams have been lowered by events such the marches on Washington, school integration and Johnson's Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The sea change in the African-American experience is also embodied in the casting of Sean Combs as Walter Lee. It compensates in symbolic significance for his being the least experienced member of the more seasoned cast. Combs, like his character, is thirty-four, but his dreams have come true in ways that the frustrated chauffeur couldn't begin to imagine.
Given the play's time frame, any revival is prone to concerns about irrelevancy. This is exacerbated by the fact that it falls under the unfashionable rubric of the well-made, kitchen sink drama. To address the dated antique issue, what I said about the Williamstown Theatre Festival's 1999 revival applies to this production, and I'll reiterate some of them here.
A Raisin In the Sun is no more dated today than Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. The surface issues may have changed but, like Salesman, this compassionate human drama still works its magic on our emotions. As told through the prism of one family's moment of crisis, it retains its pertinence. The plot trigger -- a life insurance check from Walter Younger Sr. -- brings into focus the different ways each family member envisions the dream of a better life. For Walter Jr. that money means buying his way into a business and out of a servile job; for his wife Ruth (Audra McDonald) it means a home better than the cramped Southside Chicago tenement apartment they all share; for his sister it means medical school. For Lena Younger (Phyllis Rashad), it means a house even if an affordable means means dealing with the problems associated with moving into a white neighborhood.
The details of the Youngers' lives may be dated, but the power of their story is not -- as their problems as people of color have hardly disappeared. What's more, the cultural issues of beauty and the courage to reach for the furthest off star as expressed by Walter Lee's younger sister Beneatha (Sanaa Lathan) give us a greater than ever appreciation of Hansberry as a true visionary.
Under Kenny Leon's sensitive guidance this first Broadway production since the original is imbued with the rich flavor of authenticity. As mentioned above, Sean Combs is the new kid on the block. Yet, the rapper-turned entrepreneur-turned-actor is an interesting Walter Lee even though he does not bring a full-color palette to his character. The fact that Combs is not yet in full control of the seasoned actor's skills somehow ends up dovetailing with his character's cluelessness about how to be the man he so desperately wants to be. At any rate, surrounded as he is by a uniformly splendid cast, the choice of appealing to a diverse audience takes little away from the overall excellence of this production.
Phyllicia Rashad, seen earlier this season as a more contemporary woman in The Story (my review), is a sure bet to receive a best actress Tony nomination as the God-fearing family matriarch. Audra McDonald, who has been conserving her gorgeous soprano and honing her straight acting skills, is a seething cauldron of feelings as Walter Lee's loving and oppressed wife Ruth.
Sanaa Lathan is charming and funny as the rebellious Beneatha. Teagle F. Bougere and David Aaron Baker make smaller but no less rewarding contributions. Bougere is amusing and always passionate as Beneatha's Nigerian boyfriend Joseph Asagai. Baker is aptly chilling as Karl Lindner, the representative of the home owner's association who tries to dissuade the Youngers from moving into his lily white neighborhood, setting your teeth on edge with his much used "you people." Other cameo parts are ably played by Alexander Mitchell as ten-year-old Travis Younger, Frank Harts as Beneatha's other suitor and Bill Nunn as the bearer of bad tidings about Walter Lee's "investment."
Thomas Lynch's atmospheric, finely detailed recreation of the living room/kitchen of a two-bedroom apartment with a communal bathroom and a window looking out on other tenants' laundry puts us firmly into the 50s period. Paul Tazwell's costumes, Brian MacDevitt's lighting and T. Richard Fitzgerald's sound design all contribute to a production that measures up to the best of all possible world standards.
It's too bad that Lorraine Hansberry couldn't be on hand, as Larry Kramer is for the revival of his The Normal Heart, to see her work touching the hearts of new audiences who are new to this play that asks, as poet Langston Hughes did, "What happens to a dream deferred?/Does it dry up/like a raisin in the sun?"
A postscript for trivia fans: The original Broadway cast -- Sidney Poitier as Walter Lee, Ruby Dee as Ruth, Claudia McNeil as Lena and Diana Sands as Beneatha -- 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 a 1981 TV movie starring Danny Glover and a rarely produced musical. The original production ran from March 10, 1959 to June 25, 1960, for a total of 530 performances.
LINKS TO OTHER RAISINS:
Williamstown Theatre Festival
LA revival of the musical adaptation
Mendes at the Donmar
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2003 Movie and Video Guide
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
Somewhere For Me, a Biography of Richard Rodgers
The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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