PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: A Raisin in the Sun — Deferring Denzel's Dream

By Harry Haun
04 Apr 2014

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"I always wanted the audience to see that poem and hear her voice when they entered the theatre," said the director, Kenny Leon. "It's like her spirit continues. Audiences today don't really know Lorraine Hansbury. They know her plays."

Happily, he got a second shot at making it happen. Leon also helmed the last (and only other) Broadway revival of A Raisin in the Sun in 2004, in which Sean Combs received some Tony-winning support from Phylicia Rashad and Audra McDonald. He subsequently steered Washington and Viola Davis to the Tony podium for Fences.

"After we did Fences together, Denzel said he was excited to do theatre and wanted to do it every three or four years, something on stage, so we made a commitment to each other. Two years ago, we sat down and talked. We said, 'Okay, we need to pick a time. Okay, 2014 — what are we going to do?' And by this time, we started talking to Scott Rudin, the producer. We knew we wanted to do something from the African-American canon, and we looked over a bunch of scripts, and we ended up with this."

Despite the decided edge of having directed the previous Broadway revival, Leon didn't draw from old floor-plans. "I always start with the actors I'm working with," the director declared. "I never even thought of the other cast when I was working with this one — just like when I did Fences with Denzel, I never thought of James Earl Jones, because his Troy Maxson was very different. Denzel has a great sense of humor, so I wanted to play on that. His Walter Lee has more humor and also more panic, and I wanted to explore that. I always build it around the actors I have."

He had to do some hasty rebuilding when Diahann Carroll bowed out of the role of the mother, and LaTanya Richardson Jackson bowed in. "I had to change things because Latanya is a very different actress. She's stronger, more energetic, more of an obstacle for Denzel. I always build it around the actors I have to work with."

In two weeks, Leon starts building a new show, Holler If Ya Hear Me, a musical drama based on the music of Tupac Shakur. "It's not a biography, it just uses his music to tell a story," he said. "Saul Williams is playing the lead. Christopher Jackson from In the Heights is in it. Saycon Sengbloh, who was in Motown, is in it."

Hansbury's voice is heard literally at the start of the show and figuratively at the end with a silent, symbolic bit of business in which Lena Younger remembers to take a struggling little plant ("It expresses me!") to grow in their new home. "That was the original ending that Lorraine Hansbury wrote, and it's in the movie version," said Jackson. "When they revamped it, they dropped that part out. Kenny restored it.