Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Park Square Theatre's current production captures the full power of Hansberry's vision. Staged on the Andy Boss thrust stage, the production gives its audience the intimacy of feeling like we are in the Younger's cramped apartment on Chicago's South Side. It is directed with sweeping majesty by Warren Bowles and animated by a brilliant cast led by the astonishing Greta Oglesby as matriarch Lena Younger, Aimee K. Bryant (what a year she is having!) as Ruth, and Darius Dotch giving his best-yet performance as Walter Lee.
Set on the South Side of Chicago in the mid 1950s, the Youngers are an African-American family that struggles to pay rent for their decrepit apartment, come up with fifty cents for their son Travis to bring to school, get into the bathroom down the hall they share with other tenants of their apartment, and summon the energy to go to jobs that deplete their strength and spirit, day after day. Lena, who is a widow and head of the family, works in a white woman's kitchen. Her son Walter Lee is a chauffeur whose wife Ruth is a domestic worker. Lena's daughter Beneatha is a progressive-minded college student determined to become a doctordefying the odds against both her race and her gender. Lena's husband worked himself to death to support his family. His legacy is a $10,000 insurance pay-out that is about to arrive, and which is the catalyst at the center of the play.
Walter Lee feels trapped in his job, and his inability to provide a better life for his family has eroded his self-respect. He wants to invest the $10,000 in a liquor store, in partnership with two friends of doubtful integrity. Lena worries about the financial risk and, moreover, has moral qualms about selling liquor. Her dream for the family is to get out of their cramped apartment and buy a house of their own, a dream that is shared by Ruth. Beneatha harbors hope that the money will pay for her medical education. When his mother refuses to even read Walter Lee's liquor store plan, he rails against them all. With their family's deep seated love gravely threatened, Lena takes drastic action and puts a down payment on a house. Hearing this, Walter Lee becomes even more enraged. When Lena asks him to tell her that she has "done right" he roars "You done right! You done me right out of my dreams tonight!"
The play continues with Lena's gesture to reach out to her son and rebuild his pride, Beneatha's growing interest in her African roots, and the Clybourne Park Improvement Society's efforts to keep the Youngers from moving into the all-white enclave. The resolution of the Younger family's crisis of faith is one of the most stirring and satisfying moments in American drama.
Alongside shining performances by Oglesby, Dotch and Bryant, Am'Ber Montgomery delivers a strong, fiercely intelligent portrayal of Beneathathe character often said to be most like Lorraine Hansberry herself. Andre G. Miles is delightful as Walter Lee and Ruth's good natured son Travis. In smaller roles, Neal R. Hazard as Walter Lee's would-be partner, Cage Sebastian Pierre as a wealthy young black man set on romancing Beneatha, and Robert Gardner as Karl Lindner, the emissary from Clybourne Park who intends to buy out the Youngers all give sharp-edged performances. Only Theo Langason is perhaps miscast as Beneatha's classmate from Nigeria, who stirs her interest in her ancestor's homeland. Langason provides sincerity and wisdom in framing her understanding of African heritage, but romantic chemistry between the two is lacking.
Lance Brockman has designed a thoroughly lived-in combination living room and kitchen where all of the action plays out, complete with running water and working stove. The Youngers' home is worn and insufficient for their needs, but Lena and Ruth's efforts to keep it clean and comforting are visible. A. Emily Heaney has designed costumes that are true to the mid-fifties period and each character's circumstances. A bit of dancing, in a renewal of romance between Walter Lee and Ruth, and Beneatha's foray into African folk dance, is choreographed by Emily Madigan, bringing out the joy that spontaneous movement offers. Michael P. Kittel's lighting design and Evan Middlesworth music and sound design complete a production that is as fine as fine gets.
A Raisin in the Sun reveals Lorraine Hansberry's remarkable prescience. In 1959, Nigeria and most African nations were still British, French, Belgian, or Portuguese colonies, yet Hansberry predicts the strife and upheaval that would follow hard-fought independence. She also anticipated the shift from disinterest to keen embrace of African heritage and the Black is Beautiful esthetic. And when the Youngers maintain their determination to move forward to realize their dreams, warning to them rightly suggests that the realization of one dream inevitably leads to new challenges.
If today there is more equity in employment and housing opportunities than in the 1950s (albeit, with much room for further improvement), challenges such as the intractable academic achievement gap, the horrifying incarceration rate of African-American men, and the constant risk of "driving while black" ensure us that there is still a great need for the empathy, heart, and images of strength Hansberry has created. The day may come when A Raisin in the Sun is purely a window into past times, revealing a history we have moved well beyond. Won't that be something to celebrate? Today, A Raisin in the Sun remains a profile of where we continue to be as a society, and the urgent need to continue moving forward. At least we can celebrate, right now, Park Square's brilliant and emotionally rewarding production of Lorraine Hansberry's profound drama.
A Raisin in the Sun continues at Park Square Theatre's Boss Stage through November 20, 2016. 20 West Seventh Place, Saint Paul, MN, 55102. Tickets: $40.00 - $60.00; Seniors (age 62+) - $5.00 discount; Military - $10.00 discount; Rush Tickets, $24.00, one hour before performance, cash only. For tickets call 651-291-7005 or go to parksquaretheatre.org.
Writer: Lorraine Hansberry; Director: Warren Bowles; Scenic Designer: Lance Brockman; Costume Designer: A. Emily Heaney; Lighting Designer: Michael P. Kittel; Composer and Sound Designer: Evan Middlesworth; Properties Designer: Sadie Ward; Choreography: Emily Madigan; Stage Manager: Jamie J. Kranz; Assistant Stage Manager: Salima Seale.
Cast: Aimee K. Bryant (Ruth), Darius Dotch (Walter Lee), Robert Gardner (Lindner), Neal R. Hazard (Bobo), Theo Langason (Asagai), Andre G. Miles (Travis), Am'Ber Montgomery (Beneatha), Kevin Sanders Nelson (Moving Man), Greta Oglesby (Lena), Cage Sebastian Pierre (George).