There is a scene in Lorraine Hansberry’s landmark drama A Raisin in the Sun where the troubled, young husband and father Walter Lee Younger feels he has lost any chance of finding his dream. But his loving, lioness of a mother, Lena, looks him in the eye and tells him she never stopped trusting him and she will never stop loving him.
On paper, the exchange is certainly well-written. But when it is performed as it is at Compass Rose Theater, the love, hope, devotion, and pain shared by mother and son is a palpable and visible reminder of those same qualities in all of us.
As directed by Lottie Porch and acted with grace and passion by a gifted ensemble, A Raisin in the Sun is a theatrical gift to treasure. From a staged prologue which uses a soulful rendition of “This Land is My Land” in the background to the ending which beams with hope, Compass Rose Theater presents a volatile and touching production of the play.
Compass Rose, for starters, has as their vehicle Ms. Hansberry’s play which stands the test of time alongside the works of Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill, and Arthur Miller. Like them, Hansberry captured universal truths about human beings sharing the world with other humans – our flaws, our fancies, the good in us and the sour. The play has received major revivals of late and has inspired other works, including Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park.
The fact that at age 29 Hansberry became the youngest American, the fifth woman, and first black playwright to win the best play of the year award from the New York Dramatic Critics in 1959 cannot be ignored. She immediately became an important voice for people of color, especially as the struggle for civil rights was happening in cities across America.
A Raisin in the Sun distills the truth of the black experience into the ordinary life of one family, three generations of the Youngers. The American dream seems a universe away when you live hand to mouth in a run-down apartment on the Southside of Chicago. Matriarch Lena wants a little home to call her own and share with her family. Her daughter Beneatha seeks education as her pathway out and desires to rise out of their humble ghetto and fix the broken and hurt as a physician. As for Lena’s son Walter, Jr., he knows his chance to make it is close; he just needs the cash to pay the right people so he and his (so called) friends can open a liquor store and become their own captains.
Walter’s burden is not just that he wants to leave behind his chauffeur job and truly provide a nice home for wife Ruth and young Travis. He lives under the shadow of his late father, Big Walter, to whom his mother compares him. As hard as Walter works – as a driver for a wealthy Chicago business man – Lena measures him up to Big Walter, who died from over-work. The widowed Lena tempers her grief with the high anticipation of receiving the death benefit in the mail. Like a contemporary family hoping to hit the Powerball, the Younger family sees the insurance check as a dream catcher, their ticket to a new life.
When the check arrives – the grand sum of $10,000 – a mother’s love and trust of her son is tested and the true nature of the family’s ability to stick together through any adversity takes center stage.
Director Lottie Porch allows Hansberry’s play to unfold with simplicity, grace and passion. She has assembled a skillful and engaging ensemble of actors, led by Theresa Cunningham as Lena and Kahlil Daniel as Walter. As the mother and son at odds over the lives of their family, they must display both love and rage. Cunningham and Daniel’s performances practically leap off of the stage with the ring of truth. Cunningham is also the picture of a good, Christian woman who rules her house with steely resolve and a heart that is open.
Playing Walter’s grounded and long-suffering wife Ruth, Krenee Tolson finds the good humor, tough love, and infinite patience throughout her performance. Tolson, Cunningham and Daniel also share the stage with youngster Noah Hughes as Travis Younger, Ruth and Walter’s eager son. Hughes more than holds his own with his adult costars.
As Lena’s daughter, Nikole Williams finds a touching balance to Beneatha’s fervent intelligence and deep seated passion for life. Williams is also effective in the scenes with two very different suitors, Joseph Asagai and George Murchison. Asagai – a sensitive portrayal by Paul Cottman – is the African college student who appeals to Bennie’s head and heart. Murchison – played solidly by Clayton Pelham, Jr. – represents another side of the American black experience: financial success and assimilation. These ideas constantly ebb, flow and crash throughout Hansberry’s script.
Two of the smallest roles in A Raisin in the Sun each provide a huge impact for the Younger family. Niko Tarlay finds the wounded quality in Bobo, one of Walter’s so called business associates who brings the soul-crushing news that the money Lena entrusted to her son for Benny’s education and to help his family is all gone. Lena had just enough money to give a man a down payment on a home in the, as we learn, white neighborhood Clybourne Park.
A RAISIN IN THE SUN
Closes October 19, 2014
Compass Rose Theater
49 Spa Road
Annapolis, MD 21401
2 hours with 1 intermission
Thursdays thru Sundays
And all the way from Clybourne Park, to the seedy Southside of Chicago comes Karl Lindner, the welcoming committee, played with proper stiffness and feigned bonhomie by Jim Osteen. When Lindner arrives at the Younger home, the racial issues of the late-1950s comes crashing into view. Referring to the Youngers as “you people” over and over again, Lindner may not be an ugly white man of the KKK, but he’s just as insidious, no matter how “friendly-like” he says he is. Black people would be more comfortable living among their own people, Lindner offers uncomfortably, as he tries to bribe them from moving across town.
The pride and dignity with which the Younger family, especially the man of the house Walter, faces Lindner makes for a memorable ending and compelling theatre. Once Walter decides his dream will not be deferred nor will the dreams of his wife and child, his mother, and sister, all bets are off. Lena stands taller, beaming and proclaims about her son, “He finally come into his manhood today, didn’t he? Kind of like a rainbow after the rain.”
And like a rainbow of hope, the cast and crew of Compass Rose Theater’s A Raisin in the Sun is giving a shining rendition of an American classic.
A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry . Directed by Lottie Porch . Featuring: Krenee Tolson, Noah Hughes, Kahlil Daniel, Nikole Williams, Theresa Cunningham, Paul Cottman, Clayton Pelham, Jr., Niko Tarlay, and Jim Osteen . Stage Manager and Sound Designer: Kathleen Boidy. Lighting Designer: Joey Guthman. Vocal Coach and Arranger: Theresa Cunningham. Costume Design: Julie Bays. Properties and Set Decoration: JoAnn Gidos . Produced by Compass Rose Theater. Reviewed by Jeff Walker.
A RAISIN IN THE SUN
Closes Oct 19