In a Broadway season in which revivals have eclipsed new plays it was still a surprise that the American drama that spoke most urgently to our time was Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun."
Much has changed since the work first appeared on Broadway in 1959. The passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the subject of Robert Schenkkan's Tony-nominated play "All the Way," to cite one momentous example. Progress has continued, albeit unevenly, since Hansberry's play was last revived on Broadway in 2004, including the election of the nation's first African American president.
Who could have predicted that watershed back when Sean Combs was making his Broadway debut in the role now being essayed by the far more commanding Denzel Washington?
When President Obama and the first lady attended a performance of "Raisin" at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, I had assumed that they were eager to see Washington charge through a masterpiece confronting a particularly painful chapter in American's racial history set in their hometown of Chicago. But then I saw the production, directed by Kenny Leon and starring three magnificently grounded actresses — LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Sophie Okonedo and Anika Noni Rose — and realized that much as times have changed, so much about race and the difficulty of making good on the American dream have remained the same.
In a backstage conversation with these women held in Jackson's dressing room last month, it was inevitable that the subject of the play's stark relevance would crop up. The toxic views of Clippers owner Donald Sterling were making headlines, confirming that virulent prejudice is alive and well in the desiccated hearts of dinosaur men.
Yet the feeling at the Barrymore was warm and celebratory. Hansberry's play was effortlessly crossing color lines in its stunning cathartic effect. And as a cherry on the cake, all three actresses received Tony nominations.
"I'm trying to wrap my head around it," said Jackson, who was cast after Diahann Carroll dropped out of the production during rehearsals. "I'm so happy because I love everyone in this company. But I must say one piece is missing because Denzel wasn't nominated, and so I've been trying to let that go and say that it's very special that we've been embraced and validated."
Although significantly older than his character, Washington was expected to be nominated for his muscular portrayal of Walter Lee Younger, the adult son who wants to use the insurance money from his father's death to invest in a liquor store while his mother, Lena (Jackson), and wife, Ruth (Okonedo), want to use the check to move from their cramped apartment to a modest house of their own on the white side of town, leaving some money for the education of Walter's sister, Beneatha (Rose).
In playing the Youngers, the company became its own family. Rose recalled, "When I walked in after finding out I'd been nominated, [Denzel] hugged me with so much love and sweetness and in such a beautiful kind way that you knew it wasn't acting."
Often during awards season it's the internecine competition that can be the most insidious, but in Jackson's dressing room, everyone seemed to be beyond the hoopla. "The human feeling is to be affected by it," Jackson said, "but the better person makes the choice to move beyond it. We love each other so much, and we're those kinds of people."
What struck me about Jackson's remarks is how closely they follow the heartfelt wisdom of Lena Younger, who continually encourages her children to find the better person within themselves. For example, as Lena chides an angry Beneatha after Walter has lost their inheritance, "Child, when do you think is the time to love somebody the most — when they done good and made things easy for everybody? Well, that ain't the time at all. It's when he's at his lowest and can't believe in hisself 'cause the world done whipped him so...."
Jackson, married to actor Samuel L. Jackson, happened to be in New York shopping when her cellphone started buzzing with calls from Leon and Washington informing her that Carroll had dropped out and that they wanted her to take over. Excitement flirted with panic when two huge binders were delivered to her home. "It didn't dawn on me the breadth of the role," she said.
Phylicia Rashad won a Tony for her moving portrayal of Lena in 2004. Her performance had an operatic grandeur to it. Jackson takes the character in a far earthier direction. If it was somewhat difficult to imagine Rashad's Lena riding public transportation to work, it's easy to picture Jackson's character on the bus after a long day of cleaning house.
Did she have any qualms about playing Washington's mother when only a few years separate them? "It didn't disturb me because it's theater and you're asked when you enter the theater to believe," she said. "And since I never had a problem with being in charge and in control, it didn't bother me at all."
"Day 1 she was so perfect — it was like Mama's here," said Okonedo, the British actress who has seamlessly become part of this American ensemble, accent and all. "As I hardly ever play anyone from North London, I always have dialects to learn. I would love to say that I have a great ear, but I work really, really hard, and there's no magic."
The magic comes from her emotional truth. A shadow of despondency covers Ruth's face as she prepares breakfast for her husband and son. The love between Walter and Ruth is buckling under the grind of daily poverty and the weight of deferred dreams.
"At this point she's willing to die in a back-street abortion rather than have a baby," explained Okonedo, who received an Oscar nomination for her performance in "Hotel Rwanda." "I read a lot about back-street abortions, and if you went down that road it was very dire."
"And we're going down that road again," said Rose, a Tony winner for "Caroline, or Change" whose outspoken political nature makes her an ideal Beneatha, the character she says who's closest to the playwright.
"Things that are in Lorraine's diary, Beneatha says aloud," Rose said. "The whole question of God in the play. Lorraine had great respect for what religion does for people, allowing them to move forward and live through some of the worst things, but for her it was something that didn't make sense. It was not a science. So it's a huge honor to be able to speak her heart specifically. What a conflicted, amazing, brilliant, shook-up woman she was."
The production is a testament to Hansberry's enduring power. The characters are so complexly drawn that they continue to serve as a mirror for a society still grappling with race. And with the world divided ever more between haves and have-nots, as Okonedo pointed out, the play, if anything, has grown more universal.
In the charged atmosphere of the presidential visit — on par with a prizefight, said Rose — the play's prescience was unmistakable. Lines the cast had been saying for weeks carried new resonance. "When LaTanya says, 'Seem like God didn't see fit to give the black man nothing but dreams,' and you know the president is in the house, I was almost bursting," said Okonedo, who played a video on her phone of her awed backstage reaction to the excitement.
"And then there's the Obamas' relationship to Chicago," added Jackson, who performed for the president before when he and the first lady attended the Lincoln Center Theater revival of "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," for which she was nominated for a Tony. ("The president only attends when LaTanya is performing," joked Okonedo.)
If "Clybourne Park," Bruce Norris' Pulitzer Prize-winning response to "A Raisin in the Sun," didn't convince theatergoers that the more things change in supposedly "post-racial" America, the more they stay the same, one only has to listen to the tape of Sterling's private conversation to know that bigotry has an exceedingly long half-life. The white neighborhood that doesn't want the Youngers moving in can't unfortunately be consigned to the dustbin of history.
"This is a tribute to Lorraine's genius and her foresight, but it's a sad reality that we are cyclical," said Rose. "It took three years for a black man to be in the White House for that under bubble [of racism] to come on up and show its ugly face. Particularly in the comment section online where people feel so free to show their nasty dirty underwear when they can be anonymous."
"Technology has brought a lot to the fore, because now we are able to openly see what is actually going on inside minds," said Jackson.
"A Raisin in the Sun" has three profound roles for women, but as the actresses in these parts pointed out, the play has sharp insights into the situation of black men.
"Every night, when I'm telling [Beneatha] about what Walter is going through and when is the time to love someone the most, I think of how the African American man has not been loved enough except by his own people and even then in a way that was not always a good love. It was a love that was inexplicable and not necessarily informative for them. It was an uneducated love, and it wasn't a tough enough love for what they needed to survive in the world."
"The tough love has been saved for the women, for the girls," interjected Rose.
"We got it wrong," Jackson continued. "We had been so battered and hurt we just tried to hold and heal them and hope they'd just get well. I don't think we've actually dealt with what this society has done to them. The internal part — we have just not been dealing with it."
For Rose, this is why the character of Travis (Bryce Clyde Jenkins), Walter and Ruth's son, is so vital to the play. "You hope that he's going to be able to get out of this cycle, but then you see he's mama's boy," she explained. "'He's my baby — he's not supposed to do these things' — that's where it begins."
Okonedo said that she's wants to feel hopeful, "but there's such an underclass in society. I think the play speaks to that — such a few people who have so much and so many who have so little. I don't see that getting better."
Jackson observed that what's changed is the ability to have "a more honest conversation about these issues." Rose agreed, adding, "We're talking to you about this, and you're going to put this in the paper. Nobody is writing our press releases. We have voices."
The 68th Tony Awards
Where: Radio City Music Hall, New York
When: 8 p.m. Sunday (tape-delayed broadcast on the West Coast)