"Lorraine Hansberry's 'A Raisin in the Sun' may or may not be a great play, but it's a profoundly fair one." So begins Hilton Als' excellent essay/review on the new Broadway production of "A Raisin in the Sun" in the April 14 "New Yorker," Als' article contains much that puts Hansberry's work and life in context--not least that her father, Carl Hansberry, was a successful Chicago real estate developer. Carl Hansberry fought and won a Supreme Court case against a Chicago city covenant barring blacks from buying homes in a white neighborhood; however, the case left him despairing that blacks could live in a racist America, and he died of a cerebral hemorrhage in Mexico while making plans to move his family there.
Als' essay is fascinating and informative, but it the full measure of "A Raisin in the Sun" that the new production at Broadway's Ethel Barrymore Theater doesn't need the subtext Als provides to be fully enjoyed. The story of the Youngers--a poor black family living in a cramped apartment in the South Side of Chicago--and the injustice of the society that put them there were crystal-clear from the time of the play's first production fifty-five years ago.
Langston Hughes' "A Dream Deferred"--the poem from which Lorraine Hansberry took the title of her play--is emblazoned on the theater curtain in the current production directed by Kenny Leon. This might sound like an affectation, but it is completely appropriate in this production, in which the disparate dreams of the Younger family are so achingly at war. Walter Lee Younger (Denzel Washington) goes so far as to accuse his wife Ruth (Sophie Okonedo) not only of having no dreams, but of trying to destroy his. "Man say: I got to take hold of this here world, baby!" Walter Lee tells her at the beginning of the play. "And a woman will say: Eat your eggs and go to work." Actually, Ruth has dreams, but they have less to do with Walter Lee's pie-in-the-sky and more to do with finding some measure of comfort and stability,.Her dreams are similar to those of Lena (Latanya Richardson Jackson), Walter Lee's mother, but the strain of two strong-willed women living together in a small household is apparent. And Beneatha (Anika Noni Rose),seeks fulfillment by studying for a medical degree and immersing herself in African culture with the help of a handsome Nigerian, Joseph Asagai (Sean Patrick Thomas).
The crux of the play is the ten-thousand-dollar life insurance check Lena receives for the death of her husband. Everyone in the family has hopes for the money, but Walter Lee makes peremptory claims on it. Walter Lee dreams of being a big man like the white business tycoon he drives around; at the play's beginning, he grandiloquently gives his son Travis (Bryce Clyde Jenkins) fifty cents to spend at school, then is forced to ask Ruth for carfare. Out of love, Lena gives Walter Lee the bulk of the money, with disastrous results. ("That money is made out of my father's flesh!" Walter Lee cries when he learns the worst.) .Two questions remain: whether the family can survive this catastrophe, and whether Walter Lee can regain his family's respect.
The great strength of "A Raisin in the Sun," besides the universality of its characters and its story, is that it remains optimistic for the Youngers and their future, even as Hansberry remains completely clear-eyed about the obstacles they face. "I hope you know what you're getting into," says Karl Lindner (David Cromer), the play's representative of white racism, to the Youngers at the play's end, as the family packs up to move to the lily-white neighborhood of Clybourne Park. We can guess they know exactly what they're getting into, but it is still a big step forward from what they have. The very last moment of the play--in which Lena makes a simple, hopeful act--is a harbinger for better times for the Youngers, and the fulfillment of at least some of their dreams.
The ensemble cast in this production may fairly be described as a dream cast. Of course Washington is the big draw, and his performance--which combines swagger, anger and vulnerability in exactly the right proportions--is worth the hefty ticket price. Yet the ensemble is so fine that Washington doesn't stand out. The performer who moved me the most was Latanya Richardson Jackson, exuding strength and dignity as Lena. I also loved Anika Noni Rose, who brings a sassy,thoughtful charisma to the role of Beneatha.
"A Raisin in the Sun" is a portrait of a very specific family at a very specific time in American history, and as such imparts a timeless message of human aspiration. If it isn't a great play, it is certainly a touching and durable one. After three Broadway productions, four film and TV versions and a musical version, it remains a commanding portrait of a family in trouble, struggling toward the light. Lorraine Hansberry's vision has lasted 55 years, and it seems it will last at least 155 more.