The Huntington Theatre Company has given us a stirring production of the first play by an African-American woman ever produced on Broadway– 54 years ago: Lorraine Hansberry’s landmark “A Raisin in the Sun.” The play tells the story of the African-American Younger family living in a cramped apartment on Chicago’s South side in 1959. The set is a remarkable, revolving series of oversize, loosely slatted crates, barely containing the long suffering family within. Each of the Youngers is aching for a way out: Walter Lee who’s chasing the next big deal so he can start his own business, his wife Ruth, their little boy Travis, and his sister Beneatha who yearns to be a doctor. His mother the matriarch Lena wants a “free”standing home they can count on as a foundation. Their dreams literally hang on a death benefit: the life insurance on Lena’s late husband “Big Walter “whose sweat and blood, it is hoped, will literally and spiritually provide for a better life.
When the check arrives and Lena buys a house in a white neighborhood, the Younger family is forced to confront the racial prejudice of a neighborhood association that offers to pay them NOT to move in. Now they must decide the price of admission to the American Dream–do they sacrifice their pride, take the money and let the dream shrivel like “a raisin in the sun”? Do they move in, risk alienation– and possibly their lives? The play examines the struggle of this family to establish its evolving identity, as well as the relationship between money and power, assimilation vs. integration, racism and its corrosive and varying impact on succeeding generations from older to Younger. Hovering over the proceedings is– literally– the specter of Lena’s dead husband who sits in a corner, or moves from room to room as they wrangle with themselves, each other, their bitter past in America, and their ancient past in Africa.
The performances are viscerally engaging– especially the magnificent LeRoy McClain who is alternately ambitious, naive, desperate, disillusioned and ultimately courageous as Walter Lee whose striving and climactic epiphany is heart wrenching. As Beneatha, Keona Welch is youthfully strident, funny, and savvy. Jason Bowen as Joseph Asagai is her courtly and charismatic suitor from Nigeria, the polar opposite of her other suitor — Corey Allen’s superficially assimilated George Murchison in suit and tie. Ashley Everage is touching as Walter Lee’s wife Ruth whose sweetness has been squashed by sheer exhaustion. Will McGarrahan actually ferrets out the humor in the only white character in the play, the smug hypocrite Karl Lindner.
Kimberly Scott as Lena is the dissonance in the ensemble. She’s commanding– but sometimes too self-consciously so and it pulls us out of the moment. That she also went up on her lines one too many times, didn’t help. The performance also points to director Liesl Tommy’s stagey approach. The physical presence of the aforementioned ghost of a father, like a silent Greek chorus (and at one point the focus of a show-stopping spotlight) is overkill. The overt “myth-making” puts this “Raisin” in danger of becoming a “raisinette”; the underlining is undermining. It’s the revelatory intimacy of this family drama, and Hansberry’s vision and poetry that give “A Raisin in the Sun” its searingly true and universal reach.
But there’s no denying that overall the production is moving, illuminating, and perpetually relevant– especially in concert with its latter day companion piece CLYBOURNE PARK now playing over at the Calderwood courtesy of SpeakEasy Stage. Clybourne Park is the name of the white neighborhood where the Youngers plan to move, and picks up where “Raisin” leaves off. What a rich experience for the theatergoer this season. See them both!
A RAISIN IN THE SUN at the Huntington Theatre Company runs through April 7!