What happens to a dream revived? Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 family drama, A Raisin in the Sun, has stood for so many years as a socio-historical icon and aesthetic touchstone—the beginning of black theater as a mainstream force—that one is often tempted to overlook its high standing as a play, a work that has an individuality and power to be relished outside its symbolic status. Hansberry not only crafted her work well, but particularized it: To see Raisin in the Sun is to feel that you know the Younger family, and have spent time with them in their Chicago apartment, during those crisis-ridden days when the advent of a life-insurance check threw the family into chaos and confrontation. Our showbizzy times have worn the edges off old-style Broadway naturalism, and such plays are often revived as if they were bits of bare, glossy theatricality. In that context, Kenny Leon’s production of Raisin comes as a revelation: Here is naturalism with the life it was meant to have.
This is especially startling given Raisin‘s celebrity-heavy cast, which makes Leon’s achievement in getting them all into the life of the play especially impressive. There is no grandstanding or self-consciousness. Sean Combs as the frustrated hero, Walter Lee, is frankly a novice: He hasn’t yet learned how to inhabit the role fully—his transitions are especially problematic—but he holds his place capably. He hardly needs to do more: Phylicia Rashad and Audra McDonald, as Walter Lee’s mother and wife respectively, build performances so powerful (and so divested of both actresses’ usual glamour) that everyone else is swept along with them. It’s Rashad, not Combs, who gets—and deserves—the star call.