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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"I always wanted the audience to see that poem and hear her voice when they entered the theatre," said the director, Kenny Leon. "It's like her spirit continues. Audiences today don't really know Lorraine Hansbury. They know her plays." Happily, he got a second shot at making it happen. Leon also helmed the last (and only other) Broadway revival of A Raisin in the Sun in 2004, in which Sean Combs received some Tony-winning support from Phylicia Rashad and Audra McDonald. He subsequently steered Washington and Viola Davis to the Tony podium for Fences.
"After we did Fences together, Denzel said he was excited to do theatre and wanted to do it every three or four years, something on stage, so we made a commitment to each other. Two years ago, we sat down and talked. We said, 'Okay, we need to pick a time. Okay, 2014 — what are we going to do?' And by this time, we started talking to Scott Rudin, the producer. We knew we wanted to do something from the African-American canon, and we looked over a bunch of scripts, and we ended up with this."
Despite the decided edge of having directed the previous Broadway revival, Leon didn't draw from old floor-plans. "I always start with the actors I'm working with," the director declared. "I never even thought of the other cast when I was working with this one — just like when I did Fences with Denzel, I never thought of James Earl Jones, because his Troy Maxson was very different. Denzel has a great sense of humor, so I wanted to play on that. His Walter Lee has more humor and also more panic, and I wanted to explore that. I always build it around the actors I have."
He had to do some hasty rebuilding when Diahann Carroll bowed out of the role of the mother, and Latanya Richardson Jackson bowed in. "I had to change things because Latanya is a very different actress. She's stronger, more energetic, more of an obstacle for Denzel. I always build it around the actors I have to work with."
In two weeks, Leon starts building a new show, Holler If Ya Hear Me, a musical drama based on the music of Tupac Shakur. "It's not a biography, it just uses his music to tell a story," he said. "Saul Williams is playing the lead. Christopher Jackson from In the Heights is in it. Saycon Sengbloh, who was in Motown, is in it." Hansbury's voice is heard literally at the start of the show and figuratively at the end with a silent, symbolic bit of business in which Lena Younger remembers to take a struggling little plant ("It expresses me!") to grow in their new home. "That was the original ending that Lorraine Hansbury wrote, and it's in the movie version," said Jackson. "When they revamped it, they dropped that part out. Kenny restored it.
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"I love women who are thinking of their children and someone else's well-being. That's who Lena is. She's constantly in the service of her family and her community." She brings Claudia McNeil's imposing presence and vocal bearing to the role. "I'm crazy enough to have a good time with this because it's quite a lot to bite off and chew, but I have such great support from Denzel and the director, and this is the company of dreams. They're wonderful. Stephen McKinley Henderson — he sets our bar."
Henderson, who provided Tony-nominated support for Washington in Fences, here is the emissary of bad news — that Walter Lee has been swindled out of the family savings — and, although it's a mercifully short scene, he plays most of it in tears, casting a heavy dark cloud over the play.
The last time Henderson was in A Raisin in the Sun he played, because of the lightness of his skin, Karl Lindner, the bigoted white representing the Clybourne Park Improvement Committee trying to buy back the Youngers' home.
Lindner, the prissy, priggish hypocrite who recently surfaced in Bruce Norris' Pulitzer Prize-winning play Clybourne Park and was played by Jeremy Shamos, was originally played by John Fielder, the voice of Winnie the Pooh. In this production, he's played by David Cromer, taking a temporary break from stage directing.
"I started out as an actor," he said. "I've been an actor all my life, and I moved into directing many years ago and did mostly that, but I would always go back and act occasionally. And I was just very, very, very burned out directing — I was really just running on fumes, and I had an opportunity to do two things in a row acting — I did The Normal Heart in Chicago and then I came into this, and it's been really nice. I'm not so burned out that I want to leave my profession, but it was good to visit the other side again to find out where I can be better at communicating with people to remember what actors need."
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He reveled in the role he got here. "What I like about this role is that it is fascinating to watch — and terrifying. The masked nature of his racism, the justified nature of his racism, is really, really truly structured. When somebody says, 'I'm not racist, but I just think those people are different from me and they should live somewhere else' — the minute someone says that is like that line, 'This isn't about money. It's about money.' Objectively, it's interesting to look at something this well created. I also think what he's secretly proposing to the family is called the path of least resistance, and I think most people in the world choose the path of least resistance, very often when they're confronted with a wrong." Sophie Okonedo comes to the role of Washington's life-battered wife from, of all places, gobs of British theatre. Two different dialogue coaches helped deep-six her natural accent and cover it with ugly-American sounds. Producer Rudin caught her in Haunted Child, a Joe Penhall play at the Royal Court in 2011 and insisted she play Ruth Younger. "I like the way she copes," Okonedo admitted. "She copes in many different situations and tries to make the best of things. She has enormous heart."
She and Bryce Clyde Jenkins, who plays her son, are making their Broadway debuts with this. "Broadway debut, play debut, theatre debut," the 13-year-olde underlined rather proudly. "My character is a good-hearted kid who has dreams of being normal like everyone else, having a big house, having a big yard."
Having Washington for a dad was a definite plus for him.
"Ah, man, it's an amazing experience. I know I can depend upon him. He's got my back. He's so fun to work with, keeps everyone guessing, keeps everyone laughing. He's like that to everyone, not just me. He's a great guy, on and off stage."
Beneatha Younger, the college-girl medical-student in the family, is an easy reach for Tony winner Anika Noni Rose. "I love her intelligence, her strength of spirit. She's very forward-thinking, she's very aware and awake. She has that youthfulness that is not going to be stamped down. She's unable to be held back. She's a dreamer — with a plan. She's undaunted. She does not allow herself to be fettered by the circumstances around her. She's on the cusp of womanhood and doesn't quite know what to do with herself to bring it out." The African-American elite were out in full force — from dance legend Judith Jamison to director Spike Lee. Samuel L. Jackson, husband of the current Lena Younger, was seen in the lobby chatting it up with the Tony-winning one, Phylicia Rashad. Also: Tyson Chandler, Ashanti, George C. Wolfe, Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr., Cedric the Entertainer, Grace Hightower DeNiro, Douglas Turner Ward, Anna Maria Horsford, Michael Strahan and Pauletta Washington.
Also: Billy Crystal, Bobby Cannavale, Julianne Moore and director-hubby Bart Freundlich, Gretchen Mol and Tod Williams, Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan, Bridget Moynahan, Maggie Grace, Tonya Turner Winfield and Dave Winfield, and Oscar winner Melissa Leo.
Woodie King Jr., artistic director and all-round kingpin of New Federal Theatre, was in the road company of the original company of A Raisin in the Sun, playing one of the moving men who come in at the end to move the Youngers to higher ground. "Claudia McNeil was hard on young actors," he remembered. "She was only 42, but she was a big woman and could play that role like no one else. She was hard because she thought her time had passed and she didn't want that to happen. Once, she told me, 'Do not pick up the chair that way and take focus from me.'"