Q&A: ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ Director Kenny Leon on Denzel, Tupac and the State of the American Dream

'A Raisin in the Sun' opens on April 3

This plays deal with different characters’ notions of the American Dream. It deals with varying ideas and strategy about how to get there, but it really deals poignantly with the men — whether it’s Walter Lee, George Murchison or even Walter Lee’s son, Travis. We had the deaths of Trayvon Martin and more recently Jordan Davis. As a director, do you feel like you have a responsibility to hone in on that given what’s happened so recently?

I think Lorraine Hansberry is exploring just how attainable the American Dream is, and she raises this question of do we all have access. We can see what’s happened in the last ten years with our country having an African American president. Has he and the office of the presidency been respected on all levels? What’s happened with Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis? In many ways, the American Dream has taken a step backwards.

Bryce Jenkins plays Travis in this production. He did a movie with me called “The Watsons Go to Birmingham”  From that portrayal in that film I knew that I wanted him to be Travis. I wanted people to symbolically see and feel Trayvon and Jordan in Walter Lee’s son. That’s why you will see more of a man in Travis than you might in other productions. You’ll see more of that young man that’s soon going to be 17 or 18 years old, and the question is going to become, ‘Well, what does the future hold for him?’ So in many ways I tackled the casting of it thinking that I wanted us to look at Travis through the lens of what it means to be young and black in America right now. That’s why I think this play is going to be even more relevant.

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You guys lost Diahann Carroll, unfortunately for this production. Are people making too much of what happens when an actor can’t do the production this late in the process? And what in your mind did you lose with her?

I don’t know what people are saying. Diahann Carroll is an amazing American treasure who paved the way for a lot of folks. It was clear to her and me that with the rigors of doing live theater, it just can’t happen; especially when it came to retaining lines — she’s close to 80 years old. We thought she could handle it but we had to be realistic since we’re doing eight shows a week. It’s just too much. But then you bring someone who’s as fierce and strong and exciting as LaTanya, and you don’t miss a beat. It’s just a different show.

Plus, ticket sales are at about $9 million and we don’t predict that’s it’s going to affect the box office. Actually, the show will be just as strong, but strong in a different way because of what she brings to the table. So I don’t know what people are saying, but I’m very excited. I don’t hear anybody complaining about it. [Laughs.] But inside we’re all excited. We’re working hard and everybody is having a good time.

Are people coming to see the stars in the show and then walking away with the story? Are they coming to see the story? Do you care what today’s theatergoer who’s paying to see a Fences or a Raisin in the Sun is hoping to get from the experience?

Well, I think that’s my job. My job as the director is to cast the most talented, available artists. So the fact that Denzel Washington, who started on stage, is available to do a play every three or four years — he’s not doing a play every week [Laughs.] — I want to definitely take advantage of that. I think when people come see it, they’ll not only get Denzel but they’ll get that story in a powerful way. That’s going to encourage them to go to their community theatres or their churches to do “A Raisin in the Sun.” They’ll be reminded of what’s valuable and truthful in the story, and if you can get a cast who can deliver it like the one we have, they’ll remember it for the rest of their life. If they just come to see the star and don’t take anything else away then we’re in trouble.

I think it’s exciting that Denzel even wants to do a play. It’s not like he’s making the kind of money he could be making doing a movie. So there’s got to be other reasons. He wants to be close to our community and close to live people and perfect his craft.

People forget that not everyone can do a play. That’s two hours on stage convincing people that you are who you are. It’s not like making a film.

It sounds like it means a lot to you that people will go home to New Jersey or Kansas City, and say, ‘Hey, we saw ‘Raisin’ and we should do the play right here in our hometown.’

It really does, to be honest with you. And I want to shine a light on Lorraine Hansberry. The way you do that is by getting the best available talent. You can get the whole world to know about it it that way. If you do it with lesser people, then fewer people are going to know about it. That’s just the way it works. I’m doing this Tupac musical because I want to create a spotlight around some of the things that Tupac was saying. So I gotta create it in a way that reflects something positive so that people see him differently. And the hope is that it’ll be done all over the world when it leaves Broadway.

‘A Raisin in the Sun’ begins previews at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on March 8 at 243 W. 47th Street.

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