RAISIN’ BACK ON BROADWAY

Denzel Washington and Sophie Okonedo in a scene from Lorraine Hansberry’s “a Raisin In The Sun.”
Photo by Brigitte Lacombe

Much ado about Denzel Washington’s return to Broadway focused on his age and a question as to whether the 60-year-old could convincingly portray 35-year-old Walter Lee Younger, the lead character in Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin In The Sun.”

Now that the dramatic revival has opened to critical acclaim, the role of the older Younger is no longer in question. Fact is, nightly at the Ethel Barrymore Theater, the boyish facade Washington seems to convey, seems to be one of the more alluring factors audiences are raving.

Washington who previously lured crowds to see him in “Julius Caesar” and “Fences” is currently filling the role Sidney Poiter fixated in the mind of movie goers who saw the first Black Academy Awards winner in the film version of “A Raisin In The Sun” that was released in 1961. In that version actress Ruby Dee, Diana Sands, Claudia McNeil, and a young Glynn Turman tackled issues surrounding dreams, racism and America’s shameful practice of forced segregation.

Allegedly Hansberry based her writing on personal experiences she encountered living in Chicago, Illinois. Inspired by the poem “Harlem” written by Langston Hughes in his book “Montage of a Dream Deferred,” Hansberry penned the story of a Black family whose dreams of moving out of a ghetto becomes threatened when they are deemed unwelcomed in a white neighborhood.

“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?”

By Langston Hughes

Now featuring Latanya Richardson Jackson (Lena Younger) Anika Noni Rose (Beneatha Younger) and Sophi Okonedo (Ruth Younger) the very first play by an African-American woman to be produced on the Great White Way is just as relevant, just as dramatic and far more endearing as it was when first presented at the very same Ethel Barrymore Theater on March 11, 1959.

Hansberry was only 29-years-old when she accomplished the daunting possibility of being a Broadway playwright. However, her story about Blacks moving to the exclusive white neighborhood of Clybourne Park struck a chord and audiences flocked to see the staged presentation.

On the 30-year anniversary of the beloved drama’s Broadway premiere, PBS-TV aired an uncut, three-hour TV adaptation of “A Raisin in the Sun.” That version starred Danny Glover and Esther Rolle.

Reportedly, Director Bill Duke told The Los Angeles Times, “This play transcends time and race. It applies to all poor people. What Lorraine says is something that should be said often: Folks that don’t have money, folks that society looks down its nose at, are some of the noblest spirits among us.”

In 1989, “Raisin” returned to the Great White Way for the second time.

In 2004, new audiences saw actress Phylicia Rashad, Tony winner Audra McDonald and rapper-turned-actor Sean “P. Diddy” Combs in his Broadway debut.

“At this point of my life, it’s one of the scariest things I’ve ever done because it’s so intense, it’s so emotional, it’s so hard,” Combs told the Associated Press.

Directed by Kenny Leon, the production made history at the Tony Awards when Rashad was honored with the Best Actress in a Play trophy, becoming the first African-American woman to receive the honor.

Director Leon later reassembled his leading players for a 2008 adaptation of the production which was seen by 12.7 million television viewers on ABC.

Five decades after “Raisin” first opened on Broadway, playwrights still continue to be inspired by Hansberry’s gripping drama. Bruce Norris’ homage to the iconic story, “Clybourne Park” was awarded the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the 2012 Tony Award for Best Play.

As part of its 50th anniversary season, Maryland’s Center Stage produced “Clybourne Park” in repertory with the world premiere of “Beneatha’s Place” focusing on the untold story of Walter Lee’s younger sister.

Another, dubbed “The Raisin Cycle” presents the new plays that are introducing the Younger family to new audiences.

“This is the play that keeps on giving,” director Leon added.

“If all the othergreat American plays—“Death of a Salesman,” “Streetcar,” “A Moon for the Misbegotten” — if they have been done every four or five years, surely (it’s time) to revisit “A Raisin in the Sun.”

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