A Raisin in the Sun
Produced by African Continuum Theatre
Reviewed by Debbie Minter
Walter Lee and Ruth Younger go back even farther than Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee. What is it about Raisin in the Sun that keeps its strong, sure-fire appeal for almost 50 years? And why see this rendition by the African Continuum Theatre Company at Atlas? Like any national treasure, it has a special keeping power– it just can’t be seen enough. Every production brings its own perks and joys. Although I didn’t see the Broadway version with the mind blowing casting (and apparently fabulous performance) of Sean “Puffy” Combs in the role of Walter Lee, I did catch Olney’s production with the wonderful and late Rebecca Rice as Mama Younger and assumed that would last me for awhile. Then here comes this Jewel Robinson/ Deirdre LaWan Starnes combo– how could I help but visit and sit a spell?
The play works on so many levels, especially in Jennifer L. Nelson’s directorial hands. Starnes has a piercingly strong command of Ruth. She is obviously dead tired in the opening scene, but household schedules don’t wait, so she jumps out the bed, bustles about cooking breakfast, and though she might shuffle a bit or take an intermittent pause, she gets everybody up and on their way. Deirdre wraps Ruth in layers of fatigue, doubt, even wisps of fragility and uncertainty but she’s also got an under core or strength to “get the job done,” so bone weary or not, we know that Ruth is rock solid. Like Mamas have a way of doing, she puts her own needs aside and finds a way to send her young son Travis off the school with a kiss and a smile. This is important because when she banters with her husband Walter Lee, we know that no matter how cutting he gets—and he throws some nasty barbs later in the play, we see that Ruth’s composure and quiet come from strength, not weakness, and that she’s tough enough to take anything he can dish out.
The only other actor who comes close to such solid character realization is Jewel Robinson as Mama. Robinson starts off as rather stiff and removed, like she’s going through the motions in her opening scenes. For example, the well-known passage when she reprimands her daughter Beneatha about respecting God in her house is somewhat dispassionate, like an early testing of the lines. But, Robinson has a sneaky way of building up momentum so by the end of the act when she’s pissed and hurt and ready to knock some sense into her children’s heads, she takes full command of center stage, demands that somebody get her hat, and watch out—she finds her mission and strides in the second act.
Jefferson A Russell as Walter Lee does a decent job in a tough role but seems to still be maturing, like he’ll grow into the role, but this is a respectable first cut. He, too, kicks into gear in the second act, especially once he realizes he’s been played– his despondence is solid and achingly real. Audra Alise Polk’s Beneatha, the self-absorbed sister and doctor-wannabe is rather one note, but she’s got a likable exuberance, as does Dallas Darttanian Miller as the West African suitor. The casting of John Dow as the neighborhood representative rounds out and actually ratchets up the overall caliber of the cast. Dow is a top-flight performer in a 2-second role, demonstrating that the quality of a fully realized character does not depend on the amount of time on stage. Speaking of limited stage time, check out Reggie Ray’s costume design for Robinson’s entrance in the second act, a dark blue caped ensemble accented with an elegant blinging broach on her perfectly perched crown of a hat –no wonder she was able to buy a house on an afternoon stroll.
The enthusiastic reaction to African Continuum Theatre’s production shows that Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun speaks as strongly to the current “disconnected” generation as to their parents (and grandparents) from the 1950’s. The play has a timeless, universal appeal in grappling with one’s dreams, cultural legacy, family connectedness, oppression, identity—hot button topics just as real today as then. Walter Lee’s stance at the crossroad of a decision of whether or not to sell the house to the Neighborhood representative is one of the finest theatrical moments in American theater. In that instance, he has to come to grips with his own burning personal quest for financial solvency, his father’s legacy, and his message to his own son, Travis, who represents the future. Yes, we need this production today. Besides, Raisin in the Sun is a perfect send off to Jennifer Nelson, who has announced her retirement as Producing Artistic Director at the end of the season. Poised at her own crossroads, she couldn’t have provided us with a better launching of her own impeccable legacy and a realized vision for quality theater in our future.
A Raisin in the Sun Home plays through January 7th at the Atlas Performing Arts Center (Sprenger Theater) 1333 H. Street, N.E , Thursday-Saturday, 8pm, Saturday and Sunday at 2pm, Call 202-399-7993 or purchase online at http://www.atlasarts.org/