A Raisin in the Sun was groundbreaking in 1959 and is heartbreaking in 2011. Lorraine Hansberry’s play about a working class black family in Chicago chasing middle class dreams is vivid, vital and fiercely wrought more than 50 years later in an eloquent and robust production at Everyman Theatre.
The only thing remotely dated is that today the gap between the haves and have nots yawns larger than ever, the middle class has collapsed amid an ailing economy and myriad bank and business failures and the American dream of home ownership is in foreclosure no matter what the color of your skin.
Miss Hansberry poured heart and soul into Raisin, partly because it was based on an episode in her own childhood. Miss Hansberry’s father was a successful Chicago businessman and financier who moved his family into a house in an all-white neighborhood. The family put up with angry neighbors and protestors who assaulted them and threw bricks and bottles through the windows. Discriminatory community by-laws resulted in the Hansberry family’s eviction from their home, but father Carl and the NAACP took the case to the Supreme Court and won in what came to be known as a 1940 landmark case banning racially restrictive covenants in housing contracts.
When we first meet the Youngers, they are living in a cramped, well-used apartment – perceptively rendered by set designer James Fouchard as a blur of faded floral prints, oriental rugs and lace doilies – in the type of building where you share the hallway bathroom with your neighbors. The youngest occupant, Travis (Jaden Derry, Isaiah Pope alternate performances), sleeps on the living room sofa, clutching his teddy bear and hoping to catch a few more minutes of sleep while his mother Ruth (Dawn Ursula) bangs around the kitchen making breakfast.
Something’s eating at Ruth and it’s not the drudgery of her food preparation job, juggling family duties, bowing to her mother-in-law’s will and keeping after her husband Walter Lee (KenYatta Rogers). Ruth sees her life as one long stretch of more of the same. And the thought of that doesn’t kill her—in her mind, she’s been long gone. Every emotion flickers across Miss Ursula’s face, rendering it a smooth mask of disappointment and burden. Much of the time, Miss Ursula masterfully conveys Ruth’s state without a word, relying on telling gestures and remaining sharply, bitterly observant.
The other Youngers, on the other hand, bubble with plans. Walter Lee is cooking up a scheme to own a liquor store with two friends, and his sister Beneatha (Fatima Quander) – an outspoken college-age woman roused by the burgeoning black pride and civil rights movement –is determined to buck tradition and stifling gender roles by going to medical school.
Even the family matriarch Lena (Lizan Mitchell) has something up her sleeve. An insurance check for $10,000 from her late husband’s policy is due to arrive and everyone’s got plans for it. With straight-backed resolve, Lena decides the best thing for the family is to get out of the ghetto, so she puts a down payment on a house in the white neighborhood of Clybourne Park.
Lena’s announcement brings Ruth back to life. Suddenly, there’s color in her cheeks and laughter gurgling in her throat. Walter Lee is less than thrilled, seeing his mother’s decision as a way to dash his dreams and keep him always a boy under his mama’s thumb. After blasting his mother with his rancid anger, Lena entrusts him with the remainder of the insurance money.
What Walter Lee does with the money and the fallout of his actions are the crux of Raisin, showing what each of the Younger family members are truly made of and what six generations of oppression has done to them. It has molded them into models of integrity and dignity. It has made them resolute to break the mold. It has also misshapen them.
Jennifer L. Nelson directs with an ear finely tuned to the craftsmanship of Miss Hansberry’s dialogue—the detail and earthy humor of it. The actors also seem marvelously in step with the play, beginning with Miss Mitchell’s titanic performance as Lena. Don’t let her petite frame and graceful carriage fool you. Miss Mitchell is a powerhouse in her portrayal of Lena’s unwavering pride and fury to save her family. No one can stop her from loving her children, her God and her past, good and bad.
As one of Lena’s unruly children, Mr. Rogers is a tempest of selfishness and frustration. A life of disappointment has rendered him restless and fueled with caustic energy that swells and threatens to engulf the tiny apartment. Miss Quander’s Beneatha is more of an optimistic rebel, saucily self-confidence that she will realize her future, especially in the subtly teasing scenes with one of her suitors, Nigerian student Joseph Asagai, played with stately charm by Eric Berryman.
With Everyman Theatre’s affecting production of Raisin, you cry for the casual and ingrained prejudices of the Younger family to endure. You cheer on their refusal to give up and just go away. You marvel at Lena’s ability to always find “something left to love.” You wish, in some ways, that our country was still like that—a place of harshness and hope and better times ahead, where Americans don’t wake up every morning with a mouth full of ashes.
– As a side note, this very house and neighborhood is portrayed in Bruce Norris’ superb new play Clybourne Park, which played to great acclaim at Woolly Mammoth Theatre last fall and came back for a sold-out run this summer. Note to other theaters: What a great repertory bill these two plays would be.
A Raisin in the Sun
by Lorraine Hansberry
Directed by Jennifer L. Nelson
Produced by Everyman Theatre
Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard
Running Time: Approximately 3 hours with two 10-minute intermissions