NEW YORK – Lorraine Hansberry’s brilliantly wise 1959 play “A Raisin in the Sun” is a bright light on Broadway this spring at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on West 47th Street through June 15. Ms. Hansberry’s well-thought-out story is still sharp-witted and penetrating, set sometime between World War II and the late 1950s, and about the turmoil in a black Chicago family, the Youngers, who are striving to escape the tight confines of their lives as well as the cramped quarters of their South Side ghetto apartment.
Ms. Hansberry was 29 when “A Raisin in the Sun” opened in New York, and it was her first hit, playing for over 530 performances. It won the Drama Critics Circle Award and toured the United States and many parts of the world. A movie version in which Sidney Poitier repeated his original stage role won a prize at the Cannes Festival.
It was the first play written by a black woman to break through the Broadway barrier, and the most successful yet to have been written by an African-American playwright. It was a landmark.
Ms. Hansberry died five years later at 34. However, her former husband, the writer Robert Nemiroff, continued to promote and produce her work. When she was dying, her second play, “The Sign in Sidney Burstein’s Window,” was on Broadway.
Later, Mr. Nemiroff put together a 1969 Off-Broadway revue of her letters, novels and plays, “To Be Gifted and Black.” He also got her allegorical play set in colonial Africa, “Les Blancs,” onto Broadway in 1970. A successful musical version of “Raisin” won the 1973 Tony award for Best Musical.
Ten years ago, the director of the current “A Raisin in the Sun,” Kenny Leon, assembled a starry cast to stage a revival of the play. With the singer Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, TV actress and stage director Phylicia Rashad, and Broadway’s Audra McDonald, it was a huge success.
This time out, Mr. Leon has a dazzling star, Denzel Washington, playing the role of the begrudging chauffeur Walter Lee Younger, and has assembled around him a talented and gifted ensemble of actors. For me, the result is a much superior production of the play and a more forceful look at Ms. Hansberry’s work.
Mr. Washington is an excellent stage actor, as he has shown on Broadway as Brutus in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” and in a Tony-winning performance as the father, Troy Maxson, in August Wilson’s “Fences.” Here, he becomes Walter Lee, and though he is about 20 years older than the character is supposed to be (Mr. Washington is 59), he is such a supple actor and gives such an affecting performance that he is always totally believable. His Walter Lee slowly grows into a man of maturity before our eyes. By his artistry – and the best of Washington’s acting is not a knack, but a true art – he makes the playgoer feel in the marrow of his or her bones the profound anguish Walter Lee feels as he wrestles, blazes and rages for another life for himself and his family.
After his mother Lena Younger (the fine Latanya Richardson Jackson) buys a house in Claybourne Park with her late husband’s $10,000 insurance money, they soon discover it is in an all-white neighborhood. They have to decide whether to sell and get out, by taking an offer by the only white character in the play, Karl Linder, played by the actor-director David Cromer, or whether they are entitled to make their home where they choose. What is great and prescient about the play is that the Youngers choose to fight, even though the Civil Rights Act would not be passed until 1964.
There are also artful performances by Walter’s beautiful and touching wife Ruth Younger (Sophie Okonedo); his sister Beneatha (Anika Noni Rose), who represents the next generation and wants to be a doctor; and his young son Travis (Bryce Clyde Jenkins).
When “A Raisin in the Sun” first debuted, it was a so-called “social problem play” that presented a point of view that some audiences in those days wouldn’t admire. But “Raisin” won over most playgoers because of Lorraine Hansberry’s great art and humanity. She endowed the play with warm humor that had no resemblance to many black shows of the era that often dealt with racial problems in a stereotyped way. Ms. Hansberry was able to keep the essentially serious theme of the play from ever being mirthless. The Youngers loved, hated, bickered and quarreled and made up within the confines of their family life as every family does.
The amount of good “A Raisin in the Sun” did for the American playgoing community cannot be overstated. As a person, Lorraine Hansberry was remarkable, and in the theater, she was a wonder, and still is.
Critic Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.