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A Raisin in the Sun

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - October 25, 2022

Francois Battiste, Tonya Pinkins, and Mandi Masden
Photo by Joan Marcus
The extraordinary revival of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun opening tonight at the Public Theater is one for the books. Anyone who imagines this iconic 1959 play about the struggles of a Black family in South Chicago to be even remotely dated, musty, or behind the times needs to think again because director Robert O'Hara and the first-rate cast are offering up a production that is as breathtakingly current as it is explosively powerful.

True, you may find some of O'Hara's ruffles and flourishes to be over the top; the director of Slave Play and playwright of Bootycandy is not noted for being demure. But notwithstanding occasional lapses into overselling, particularly toward the end, this production fully retains both Hansberry's voice and the voices of her characters, the members of the Younger family and the others who cross their path. These all ring out loud and clear and true from start to end, representing past, present and future on a dangerous and switchback-filled crossing that meanders precariously between hope and despair and back again.

We first meet the family on a weekday morning, as Ruth Younger (Mandi Masden) rouses her sleeping schoolboy son Travis (Camden McKinnon at the performance I attended) from his bed on the living room sofa, and then calls out to her husband Walter (Francois Battiste). With only one bathroom being shared by five people, everything must be handled in an orderly procession. Soon they will be joined by the family's matriarch Mama Lena (Tonya Pinkins) and Lena's daughter, Walter's sister Beneatha (Paige Gilbert). This is the Younger family, living together in a way-too-small rental apartment that Ruth refers to as a "rat trap." And despite Lena's determination to keep everything clean and orderly, thanks to Clint Ramos' set design we can readily see the truth of Ruth's description.

Little by little, the details of their lives unfold, and the notion of entrapment extends to them. The play is packed with significance in their daily routines, conversations, temper flare-ups, and ambitions. Walter, a tightly wound, caged and unpredictable tiger, is fed up, burned out, and feeling utterly crushed by his stultifying and humiliating job as a chauffeur for a wealthy white family. Ruth is in despair at watching her marriage falling apart and likewise feeling trapped, especially as she has just learned she is pregnant. On the other hand, Beneatha, who is studying to attend medical school, is bound and determined to be part of making this a more just world, alone or with the help of one of the two men she is dating. One of them is the wealthy, self-important George (Mister Fitzgerald), whose family money and connections could buy her into a better life. The other is Joseph (John Clay III), the idealistic Nigerian student from her college whose outlook on life and ambitions for returning home to help his community Beneatha finds most appealing.

The core driver of the plot centers on a long-awaited check for $10,000, far more money that anyone in the family has ever seen at one time. It is the payment from an insurance policy that had been taken out on the deceased family patriarch, Lena's husband and Walter and Beneatha's father, who, in one of the director's special touches, makes a ghostly appearance from time to time. Walter wants to use the money to buy into a liquor store with two of his pals, while Lena has her eye on helping with Beneatha's tuition and purchasing a house for the family. How this all plays out serves as the narrative trigger, with much riding on Lena's ultimate decision and Walter's knife-edge unpredictability.

If you are unfamiliar with the play, this truly is must-see theater. But even if you have seen a previous production, I cannot overemphasize the quality of the acting all around, the brilliance of the dialog, the way that an undercurrent of family ties and its tribulations and of the long history of racism in America impact every word that is uttered. There is no question but that A Raisin in the Sun is one of the truly great American plays of the twentieth century, and everyone connected with this production absolutely does it honor.

A Raisin in the Sun
Through November 20, 2022
The Public Theater
Newman Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: