The Poitier apparent, Denzel Washington, first encountered A Raisin in the Sun as a movie — David Susskind's 1961 filmed record of the Broadway play, replete with its original, iconic cast: Sidney Poitier, Claudia McNeil, Ruby Dee, Diana Sands, Ivan Dixon, John Fiedler and Lou Gossett — and he found himself April 3 on the same playing field — the Barrymore Theatre — where that company won its place in our hearts.
The symmetry's great, but why did it take so long for the role and the actor to cross paths, one had to ask Washington when he met the press after the show at the Tribeca Rooftop. "I don't know what happened — it just didn't work out until now," he advanced tentatively. "Part of it was as simple as this: My children were growing up in California. They were too young for me to come and do a play because I couldn't commute, come back to L.A. Sunday night and then turn right around and go back. Consequently, I didn't come back to New York to do a play for 15 years. Once my kids got of age, I was ready to get back to what it is that I really loved."
And that, he said, was theatre. "I started right here at Lincoln Center in 1975 at Fordham University, and I went to see great plays on Broadway. I saw James Earl Jones in Oedipus the King at St. John the Divine. I saw David Dukes and Richard Gere in Bent — in those days with my six-to-eight bucks student discount — and I said, 'That's what I want to do in life,' much more than Hollywood. From where I went to school and what we were being taught, the goal for me was to get to Broadway."
Washington debuted in 1988 without a lot of distinction in Checkmates, a modest comedy directed by Woodie King, Jr., and co-starring Ruby Dee, Paul Winfield and Marsha Jackson. Then, Hollywood stardom struck and kept him entrenched in film until 2005.
His Broadway roles of this millennium — Marcus Brutus in Julius Caesar, his Tony-winning Troy Maxson in Fences and now Walter Lee Younger in A Raisin in the Sun — have a common link: All three want desperately to be the heroes in their own lives and fall tragically short of the mark because they are fundamentally flawed.
In the case of Walter Lee, he's a chauffeur longing for the fast lane, chasing get-rich-quick schemes to their logical dead-ends. At 40, he lives at home with his mother, his sister, his wife and his son in a dreary, rat-trap apartment on Chicago's South Side. It is his mother, Lena, who sees a way out — spending the $10,000 insurance from her late husband on a simple little house in the segregated suburb of Clybourne Park. Trusting and loving her son, she asks him to deposit the money in the bank.
And therein hangs a beautiful and important American play. The first voice you hear when you entered the Barrymore Theatre is, as it should be, that of the author, the late Lorraine Hansbury, telling Studs Turkel in a radio interview that American theatre is more than six blocks in New York. And written in script on the curtain scrim is the Langston Hughes poem from which Hansbury found the perfect title for her piece:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun
Or fester like a sore—
And then run
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
Like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
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