The president and first lady caught the American masterpiece Friday night at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, where it first opened more than 50 years ago.
The only recognition from the cast of their special guests was when Washington tipped his cap in their direction at the curtain call, which was already a standing ovation. The president and his wife went backstage to greet the actors at intermission.
“I’m so glad. I’m so happy that he came to see the show,” said 13-year-old Bryce Clyde Jenkins, who is making his Broadway debut. “It means so much to me that the president took time out from whatever he was doing to come see a show like ours.”
The Obamas took their orchestra section seats to huge applause that was repeated when they left, shaking hands as they went up and down the aisle. The president wore a suit and the first lady wore a sparkly black top and a chic black leather jacket.
There was a 20-minute delay in the beginning of the show when an alarm flooded the theater with a piercing sound. A huge ovation greeted its end. Though asked to put away cellphones, virtually every audience-member whipped them out to take flash shots of the Obamas, lighting up the darkened theater.
Lorraine Hansberry’s play, set in 1950s Chicago, centers on a struggling working-class black family anxiously awaiting a $10,000 insurance check and the ensuing squabbles over how to spend it. It may touch a chord with Obama, who calls Chicago home and who has a parent from Africa, a strong theme in the play.
Stephen McKinley Henderson, who only appears in the second act, shook the president’s hand at intermission and was floored by the power of the moment. Michelle Obama, who clearly knew the play, recognized Henderson’s character and asked him if he’d be on stage soon, then gave him a hug. “I’ll never be the same!” Henderson said.
Besides Washington, Jenkins and Henderson, the cast includes LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Sophie Okonedo, Anika Noni Rose, Sean Patrick Thomas and David Cromer. The director is Kenny Leon.
“I just can’t believe it,” said Thomas, who said he and British actress Okonedo compared it to performing for the queen. “I’ll tell my daughter, I’ll tell my son, the night I performed for the president. I’ll tell them, ‘If you do your homework and do what you’re supposed to do, you can, too.'”
The Obamas have been big boosters of Broadway during his presidency. Michelle Obama and daughters Sasha and Malia have attended performances of “Memphis,” ”Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” ”Sister Act,” ”The Trip to Bountiful,” ”Motown the Musical” and “The Addams Family.” And the first couple saw “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” during a date night in 2009. Michelle Obama and six girlfriends also saw “Fela!” in 2010.
This is the second Broadway revival of Hansberry’s play. The original Broadway production in 1959 featured Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Claudia McNeil and Diana Sands, who reunited for a 1961 film adaptation. The last Broadway revival occurred in 2004, starring Sean Combs, Phylicia Rashad, Sanaa Lathan and Audra McDonald. It also was directed by Leon.
This time, tickets are a hot commodity. The theater has been sold out since the doors opened, and the well-received revival has pushed the average ticket price to $111 and the top premium to $348, second only to “The Book of Mormon’s” top premium of $477 last week.
The cast can’t think about that or who might be out there. “When we’re on that stage, we have to be professionals,” said Jenkins. “That’s one of the hardest parts about having the job — you never know who’s out there.”
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