A Raisin in the Sun
The title of the play comes from the Langston Hughes poem "A Dream Deferred": "What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?" Hansberry gave each member of the Younger family a dream and crafted their personalities around the pursuit of those dreams, informing their relationships with their desires, thus creating dramatic conflicts which they must resolve. Lena (Kimberly Scott), the matriarch of the family, exudes the patience of one who has seen her own dreams deferred, as were those of four generations of her ancestors. All of her dreams now are for her children and grandson, to give them a better life than she and her late husband Big Walter had achieved. Lena has never had much, other than her strength and her pride, but she is about to receive a life insurance check for ten thousand dollars that will alter her life, but not necessarily in the way she imagines.
All too often, we read about lottery winners whose lives and families are destroyed by their mega-prizes. Most people are not equipped to deal with sudden riches, and the clichés about money not buying happiness or being the root of all evil have a measure of truth that is starkly illustrated in Raisin. Lena's son Walter Lee (LeRoy McClain) wants to invest the money in a liquor store to raise his family's economic profile and elevate himself from working for the man to leading as a captain of industry. His younger sister Beneatha (Keona Welch) aspires to become a doctor and hopes to use some of the funds for tuition. Walter Lee's wife Ruth (Ashley Everage) has no specific designs on the money, but the fact that she does not wholeheartedly support his plan is fodder for arguments and discontent between them. However, Ruth understands the possibilities it can afford them all, knowing that Lena favors making a down payment on a home of their own.
The Youngers are a family in transition, moving toward an unknown future while desperate to escape their past and present circumstances. Set Designer Clint Ramos places the three rooms of the apartment on a turntable. With every rotation, it drives home the point that these people have been stuck going in circles for generations and it is no simple task to break free from their destiny. Lena has accepted her fate, but her children chomp at the bit to throw off those shackles. Scott moves languidly, with a look of resignation on her face. At the same time, she holds her head erect and is the epitome of dignity. She may acquiesce, but she does not surrender and tries to instill the same pride in her family.
The next generation does not share Lena's patience. Beneatha is a feminist ahead of her time. Not only does she wish to pursue a non-traditional career, but she floats the idea that she might never marry, even as she juggles the attentions of two suitors. Welch taps into the young woman's quick wit, her intelligence and her insecurity, even as she tries to show her independent spirit. Ruth represents a cautionary tale for Beneathamarried young to a man she struggles to respect, mother of a son with another on the way and mired in a constant state of exhaustion. Everage shambles about the set as if she has the weight of the world on her weary shoulders, but is quick to cajole ten-year-old Travis (Cory Janvier at this performance), harp on her husband, or confide in her mother-in-law. She projects the inner strength that holds her family together.
Walter Lee has a tendency to make everything be about him and what he wants. He takes up a lot of space in the apartment and McClain is powerful in the role that requires him to play a wide range of emotions. He is a bundle of energy and excitement in anticipation of the arrival of the check; reduced to despair when he learns of Ruth's pregnancy; bitter and sarcastic at the news of Lena's house purchase; delirious with disbelief and panic when the money is gone. When Walter Lee figures that the way out of their situation is to put on a show for the white man who wants to buy the house from them, McClain's Stepin Fetchit routine is stunning and gut-wrenching. He breaks the fourth wall to address his pleas to the audience and you can hear a pin drop in the hush that follows. When his character regains his pride, his turnaround is all the more dramatic for it.
Will McGarrahan is pitch perfect as Karl Lindner, the representative of the community association hoping to keep the Youngers from moving into their house in an all-white neighborhood. His conversations with the family feel awkward and uncomfortable for all concerned, and he appears incredulous that they would even consider living where they are not wanted. Having recently seen Bruce Norris' play Clybourne Park, these scenes have greater impact. McGarrahan's take on Lindner is more garrulous and less nefarious, making him appear to be an everyman who is an ignorant product of his times.
Jason Bowen gives another in a growing resumé of impressive performances as Joseph Asagai, Beneatha's African suitor who has a decidedly different outlook on the world. He shows affection and respect for her, but feels more strongly about his mission to help his country grow and change. Corey Allen plays well-to-do George Murchison, a young man who is comfortable in his own skin and knows where life will take him. He fails to understand Beneatha's need to be her own person and barely tolerates Walter Lee. Although he has limited stage time, Maurice E. Parent makes a bold showing as Walter Lee's business partner Bobo. He is a bundle of nerves and looks like he is just about ready to go off the deep end.
Tommy imbues this production with dignity and strength with her particular visceral brand of storytelling and the design team follows suit. Augmenting the powerful images conveyed by the rough-hewn, rotating set, Lap Chi Chu's lighting changes frequently to establish scenes and moods. Original music by Broken Chord (Daniel Baker and Aaron Meicht) includes loud rap and screeching jazz saxophone, implying the dissonance within the walls of the apartment. Kathleen Geldard's costumes reflect the period and the economic status of the characters, and she crafts a beautiful, colorful garment and headdress that Asagai brings from Africa for Beneatha to wear to get in touch with her heritage.
There are so many layers and themes in A Raisin in the Sun that fifty-five years after Hansberry wrote the play, there is still so much to explore and analyze within its pages. The mere fact that Norris and others have based new works on parts of its story is testament to its ongoing resonance. It is unfortunate, but as a society we have not overcome the poverty, the racism and the desperation depicted. However, as long as Raisin is read in schools and staged with the integrity of this production, we can choose to focus on the positive messages it conveys about pride in one's family and one's heritage.
A Raisin in the Sun performances through April 7, 2013, at Huntington Theatre Company, Boston University Theatre, 264 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-266-0800 or www.huntingtontheatre.org. Written by Lorraine Hansberry, Directed by Liesl Tommy; Set Design, Clint Ramos; Costume Design, Kathleen Geldard; Lighting Design, Lap Chi Chu; Original Music & Sound Design, Broken Chord; Casting, Alaine Alldaffer; Production Stage Manager, Leslie Sears; Stage Manager, Phyllis Y. Smith
Cast (in order of appearance): Ashley Everage, Cory Janvier*, Zaire White*, LeRoy McClain, Keona Welch, Kimberly Scott, Jason Bowen, Corey Allen, Will McGarrahan, Maurice E. Parent, Calvin Braxton, Christian Roberts (*at select performances)