by: Sandi Durell
“Man says I got me a dream. Woman says eat your eggs.” That man with a dream is Walter Lee Younger, brilliantly inhabited by film and stage star Denzel Washington, an inimitable presence, in this impeccable revival of “A Raisin in the Sun,” and beautifully directed by Kenny Leon. It was written by Lorraine Hansberry, the first play by an African-American woman produced on Broadway in 1959. It mirrors her own family life struggles and growing up in a white neighborhood in Chicago.
Upon entering the theater, we listen to an interview of Ms. Hansberry by Studs Terkel, some of the penetrating words flashed on a screen – “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?” No! It goes on to change the lives of black Americans forever.
Walter, a chauffeur, works hard at coming up with schemes of making it big so he can sit in an office like the white man with his feet up on a desk, and he also drinks. He is mainly restless and troubled. His family works hard at bringing in money to pay the bills in their cramped ramshackle apartment on the south side of Chicago (Mark Thompson, set design). The current scheme is buying a liquor store with two friends using the insurance money coming to his mother Lena (a sweetly rough, tough matriarch LaTanya Richardson Jackson) from an insurance policy on the life of her deceased husband. Lena Younger rules with a loving but iron hand. His wife Ruth (the soulful British actress Sophie Okonedo) is physically and emotionally tired of hearing about his schemes and dreams. She works hard as a maid, as she sees their marriage disintegrate.
Sister Beneatha (lovely Anika Noni Rose) has her own dreams of going to college and, smart and prickly though she may be, her atheist beliefs get slapped down by Grandma Lena when she dares to spout off. Beneatha is pursued by a wealthy young man George (Jason Dirden) who isn’t too interested in her opinions, but more in her beauty. She also has a Nigerian boyfriend Joseph (Sean Patrick Thomas) who is more emotionally in tune with her socio-political leanings.
And there’s Walter and Ruth’s son Travis (Bryce Clyde Jenkins) who has no place else to sleep but on the living room couch. They all vie for the bathroom in the hall early mornings.
While Lena dreams of having a house where her family can live in comfort, Walter is hit hardest by her decision when she takes the $10,000 and uses part of it as a down payment on a house in a white neighborhood, part of it for Bennie’s college and the rest in a savings account.
The pot boils over when Karl Lindner (David Cromer), representing the community where they are to move, comes a-calling with an offer to pay them a premium to keep them from moving into the house; the cat and mouse chat one of the more amusing moments within the realization of an ideology that sears.
Lena has the one-liners that fill with chuckles and laughs although plenty of humor is peppered throughout the play. Rounding out the cast is Stephen McKinley Henderson as Bobo, Walter’s investor friend.
It is through this juxtaposing of anguish and happy moments that the Youngers grow, especially Walter who finally achieves a place of strength, courage and understanding.
“A Raisin in the Sun” is a wonderfully moving piece of art and is what great theater is made of.
Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street, NYC thru June 15th. 800-432-7250