Fifty-five years ago, Lorraine Hansberry’s landmark play A Raisin in the Sun opened on Broadway. At the time, it was considered groundbreaking for its realistic portrayal of race and racism on the stage.
Now, more than a half-century after its debut, America has elected a black president. But recent high-profile cases, such as the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, and the fact that Michael Dunn was not convicted of murder in the shooting of Jordan Davis, have led many to believe that our country has not evolved as far on the issue of race as many had hoped we would have by the 21st century. This perspective was widely shared by the director and various cast members of the revival of A Raisin in the Sun, scheduled to open on Broadway April 3, with previews beginning in March.
Denzel Washington, who will star as family patriarch Walter Lee Younger, told The Root that while America has come far, it still has further to go. “You can’t legislate love. You can’t change 300 and 400 years of history through legislation, or in 20 or 30 or 40 or 50 years.” He concluded, “There are many more opportunities now than there were in 1959, but there is still a lot of work to do.”
The play’s director, Kenny Leon, said many of the themes explored in the play remain just as relevant today. “The fact that this woman at 27 years old wrote this play in 1959 and it keeps on teaching us tells me we’re not where we should be,” he said.
“Even if you look at the housing market and what’s happened in the last 10 years, this play talks about the housing market and where we can live.” He cited the recent mortgage crisis that disproportionately affected black Americans as proof that the play’s story is still very relevant today.
Leon added that the lack of respect afforded President Obama, and the Zimmerman and Dunn verdicts, are more evidence that our country has much further to go on the issue of race. Of the Dunn verdict, he said simply, “I think that’s sick, but that tells you where we are on race.”
Actor Sean Patrick Thomas, who is best-known for his performances in films like Save the Last Dance and who will be portraying Joseph Asagai, echoed that sentiment, telling The Root, “It’s disgusting that there’s obviously a feeling out there that your presence as a black man is enough to be a threat.”
Broadway veteran LaTanya Richardson, who will appear as grandmother Lena Younger in the play, expressed sorrow for Jordan Davis’ mother, saying, “As a mom I watched his mother talk on camera, and it’s the situation that Lena says, to have a manchild, to have a boy in this country that every day in this country you don’t know whether he’s coming back, that’s a very intense and heady thing to have to deal with every day of your life, and most African-American women have to deal with it.”
But while the play’s focus on racial discrimination still seems very timely today, so does another angle, according to the cast: class. Part of the play’s universal appeal is its focus on the struggle to which so many families can relate in their quest for the American dream, which for many is symbolized by home ownership and financial success. Both actress Sophie Okonedo, who was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance in Hotel Rwanda and who is making her Broadway debut as Ruth Younger, and Richardson cited the struggles of today’s middle class as being reminiscent of the story of the Younger family.
“It’s not just black families that have fallen prey to not having their dreams come true,” Richardson said. “The middle class is pretty much gone.”