Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 30, 2014
A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry. Directed by Kenny Leon. Set design by Mark Thompson. Costume design by Ann Roth. Lighting design by Brian MacDevitt. Sound design by Scott Lehrer. Music curation by Branford Marsalis. Hair design by Mia M. Neal. Cast: Denzel Washington, with Sophie Okonedo, Anika Noni Rose, David Cromer, Bryce Clyde Jenkins, Jason Dirden, Sean Patrick Thomas, Keith Eric Chappelle, Billy Eugene Jones, Stephen McKinley Henderson, and LaTanya Richardson Jackson.
Taken together, these elements herald more an academic study than an electric evening of drama, and that's exactly what director Kenny Leon ends up delivering. From an apologetic hovel-apartment set by Mark Thompson that seems to want to hide far upstage to mood-puncturing scene-change jazz ("curated" by Branford Marsalis) to a collection of inharmonious performances from potentially terrific actors including Denzel Washington, Sophie Okonedo, and LaTanya Richardson Jackson, the prevailing atmosphere is one that's dark and deadening.
Not that these characteristics, in moderation, are necessarily wrong for Hansberry's play. The Younger family it depicts is at a cultural crossroads, where the spiritualism of the past as embodied by the mother Lena must confront the revolutionary impulses of a newer generation (Walter Lee, a limo driver, and his sister Beneatha, who has aspirations of becoming a doctor). For the first time encountering a windfall$10,000, from Lena's husband's life insurance policythe family must face the question of whether to invest it in the liquor store Walter Lee wants or in the house Lena prefers (in an up-and-coming white neighborhood) underscores key generational rages and tensions for which, then as now, there are no easy answers.
For a more shadowy approach to this story to work, things can't be viewed from a distancethey must be tackled head-on so the strife can be transformed into the constructive, edifying force Hansberry documented. Leon, however, isolates us and his characters as much as possible, creating a Younger family and a production that spend more time observing and commenting on the injustices around them, but infrequently actually experience anything themselves. And the Youngers, seen as this kind of reactive and indifferent, are neither avatars of nobility nor powerful agents for change in a country about to cry out for it.
Despite being (and looking) about 20 years too old for Walter Lee, Washington is the right fiery type for embodying a man whose dreams far exceed his grasp (and proved so in the revival of Fences four years ago). And in the scenes that bring him into closest contention with the man's family, Washington does movingly depict someone who's constantly despairing about being caught between two imperfect existences.
But because Washington doesn't commit to one so fully that you fear what might happen if he doesn't attain his goals, Walter Lee is too wishy-washy and spiritually malleable to make sense as someone who's willing to sacrifice anything to get his way. Sidney Poitier, who originated the role on Broadway and recreated it on film, is its rightful model for the conviction, strength, and yet realism he portrayed; Washington doesn't go as far as he needs to toward any of those destinations, let alone all three.
Better, at least early on, is Okonedo, who as Walter Lee's wife Ruth conveys much of the stability that Washington and Jackson lack. Deeply stern but also obviously loving, Okonedo's Ruth has clearly learned to make the best of her circumstances and become the queen of that limited realm. Unfortunately, Okonedo doesn't expand and develop as Ruth's opportunities do, which stops you from understanding or sharing in the desperation that should flood her finally seeing a way out of the prison she's has not before acknowledged.
Anika Noni Rose has no such problems. As Beneatha, she balances with energetic aplomb both the young woman who's socially shackled by white society and, later on, by the promise of ancestral freedom Africa comes to her to represent. Rose's Beneatha is perfectly at home with the traditionalist Joseph Asagai and the thoroughly assimilated George Murchison (respectively, Sean Patrick Thomas and Jason Dirden, both terrific), and reinforces the dangerous duality at the heart of the play.
There are a few other strong elementsDavid Cromer is slickly, nervously right as the white homeowner who tries to persuade the Youngers to stay away from his neighborhood; Stephen McKinley Henderson is brilliantly understated as Walter Lee's friend and prospective business partner; and Bryce Clyde Jenkins is appealingly precocious (if not much else) as Walter Lee and Ruth's son, Travis. But the overall impression is one of disparate components still in search of a unifying vision to make them feel necessary in a world that, 50 years after the passage of Civil Rights, is extraordinarily different from the one Lansberry witnessed.
Leon demonstrated that he comprehended the work's message and knew how to overcome its challenges a decade ago, with his previous revival of A Raisin in the Sun. Though marred by a wholly inadequate performance from Sean Combs as Walter Lee, it sizzled thanks to luminous costars Phylicia Rashad, Audra McDonald, and Sanaa Lathan, who found all the edgy, soaring theatricality in a work that, by its nature, should never be pedestrian.
This A Raisin in the Sun is rarely anything but, equally hampered as it is by the deadening context of its pre-show as it is the lack of context everywhere else. We may have moved on from plights like the Youngers', but the play still has much to say to all of us about how we view those who are like us, how we view those who are different from us, and, most important, how we view ourselves. But such things are hard to see when you're given no choice but to view them all through a telescope.