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I have never seen a poor production of A Raisin in the Sun. After watching Kenny Leon’s affecting Broadway staging of Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 classic, this time starring Denzel Washington as the dream-chasing chauffeur Walter Lee Younger, I still haven’t. I marvelled again at the solid construction – the confrontations that avoid preachiness, the jokes that pop up in exactly the right places.
The rightness of this evening, which also features Sophie Okonedo as Walter’s wife, Ruth, and Anika Noni Rose as his sister, Beneatha, was at first slightly in doubt: we enter the Barrymore as an interview with Hansberry unravels on the sound system. There’s no need to underline the playwright’s significance: the play itself, and a programme insert by James Baldwin, do that splendidly.
It is, all the same, useful to recall that Raisin was the first play by an African-American woman to be produced on Broadway. Women, after all, are the prime subjects of this story of a working family on the Southside of Chicago in postwar, pre-Civil Rights era America. People associate the play with Walter because that role attracts the big names: Sidney Poitier in the Broadway premiere and subsequent movie; Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs in the 2004 Broadway revival, also directed by Leon.
But Walter, who hopes to use some of his mother’s $10,000 insurance money to fund a liquor store business, disappears for long stretches. The story begins with Ruth, who frets about raising a 10-year-old son, Travis, in a cramped apartment and who has found herself pregnant, and ends with Lena, the Mama who lost a husband early and who now carries on his legacy by buying a modest home in a neighbourhood where blacks are unwelcome.
The actors who stumble and glide and dance about Mark Thompson’s single-unit set are a true, valiant ensemble but it is LaTanya Richardson Jackson, as Mama, who pierces the heart. She made me forget about my worry that Washington, 59, who excels at the drama’s comedy more than its pathos, was too old for Walter, who is 35 in Hansberry’s original version and 40 here. Richardson Jackson has the gift that no amount of drama school coaching can instil: she knows how to conjure a rich inner life. When she says, “I come from five generations of people who was slaves and sharecroppers,” you see centuries of sorrow in her eyes. Spectacular.