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Regional Reviews: Cleveland & Akron

A Raisin in the Sun
Ensemble Theatre
Review by Mark Horning | Season Schedule

Also see Mark's review of Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again.

Zyrece Montgomery, Eugene Sumlin
and Nicole Sumlin

Photo by Aimee Lambes
When it all comes down to it, one of the most powerful forces in the universe is family. No matter what our failings and even when the entire world has turned their back on us, we can always rely on family to take us in, to give us a hot meal, some words of encouragement, and when needed, a swift kick in the ass.

It is pretty apparent that Lorraine Vivian Hansberry enjoyed the fruits of such a family as a young black female feminist lesbian playwright. Her work A Raisin in the Sun catapulted her to stardom as the first black female author to have a play performed on Broadway, with a black director as well. In 1960 at the age of 29, Hansberry was the youngest playwright ever to receive the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award.

Opening on Broadway on March 11, 1959, the play was nominated for four Tony Awards: Best Play, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Direction. In just two short years it was translated into 35 languages and performed internationally. The work is in all ways an example of classic theatrical literature. After an absence of over a decade from the Cleveland stages, A Raisin in the Sun has made its triumphant return as an Ensemble Theatre production in celebration of its 40 years of existence.

The storyline comes from personal experiences that Hansberry had growing up in segregated Chicago in the 1940s and '50s. It was her father, Carl Augustus Hansberry, a successful black real estate broker, who upon incurring the wrath of his predominantly white neighbors in the Washington Park Subdivision of South Chicago successfully took his court case Hansberry v. Lee clear through to the Supreme Court while his wife walked the house at night with a loaded German luger.

In the play, five members of the Younger family share a tiny apartment in the South Side area of Chicago. Lena Younger (Angela Gillespie Winborn) is the matriarchal head of the family. Her son Walter Lee (Eugene Sumlin) and his wife Ruth (Nicole Sumlin) have a young son named Travis (Easton Sumlin). While husband and wife share a small bedroom, their son is forced to sleep each night on the sofa. Sharing the other small bedroom with Lena is her daughter Beneatha (Zyrece Montgomery).

Tensions are high as the family awaits the $10,000 insurance settlement check following the death of Lena's husband. As the namesake line from the Langston Hughes poem "Harlem" states, "What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?" With everyone at the seemingly end of their dreams, most have their individual plans for the cash. Walter dreams of owning a franchise of liquor stores with a couple of barfly buddies of his. Ruth wants more than anything to move into a real home. Beneatha has the smarts and motivation to be a doctor but lacks the tuition. Lena simply wants to do what is best for her family.

As these various actions unfold, Beneatha is visited by a couple of serious suitors. Joseph Asagai (Leilani Barrett) is an idealistic exchange student from Nigeria looking to take his education back to his home country in hopes of improving it. Nnamdi Okpala (George Murchison) is a privileged young black college student who plans to take over his father's empire someday.

Added to the mix is Karl Linder (Chris Bizub), who pays the family a visit, representing the all-white neighborhood association of Woodlawn where Lena has made a $3,500 down payment on a house. His group is willing to purchase the home back from Lena with her family making a tidy profit.

Emotions run to fever pitch as far-reaching contrasting ideals are presented that include the the place of wealthy blacks in American society, the struggles of black women to become educated and to take their rightful place in society, the erosion of the family patriarchal position, the "back to Africa campaign," and the evils employed by those wishing to profit through neighborhood desegregation.

Director Celeste Cosentino has assembled an enthusiastic cast of high-energy individuals. Angela Gillespie Winborn is perfect as the hardworking matriarch of the Younger family who takes no sass from anybody. While she is not perfect in her decision making skills, when Lena makes up her mind, it is firm, fair, and with the purpose of teaching a lesson or two in mind. Angela plays the role large and in charge as it needs to be. In one telling scene, Lena carefully packs a sickly and spindly plant that she has nursed for years on the kitchen window sill. While everyone mocks her for her efforts, she knows that this plant is the essence of her dream. Just like the adult inhabitants of the cramped and dreary apartment, they will be taken from an environment of little or no light to one where they will flourish in the bright sunshine of hope.

Eugene Sumlin as Walter Lee has big dreams but lacks the initiative to see those dreams come true without major help from others. Walter Lee is more man/child than adult who, when he realizes the power of family, knows it is time for him to grow up and become the head of the family. Sumlin manages to time Walter Lee's maturing process in order to have it peak at the right time. Nicole Sumlin as Walter's wife Ruth is at the end of her dream. Nothing in her life has turned out as she wanted. She is on the verge of chucking it all away just to escape the daily grind she has found herself in. Nicole flits effortlessly from emotion to emotion as she desperately tries to hold onto her own tiny piece of dreams.

Travis is the only thing keeping Ruth together. He is unflappable and patient and probably the most mature adult of the lot. Easton plays the role straight, without a lot of unnecessary embellishment. As Joseph Asagai, Leilani Barrett could have members of the audience swooning by reading the phonebook. His voice is just that good. Many a lady would have followed this Joseph back to Nigeria in a heartbeat. Nnamdi Okpala is George Murchison, the cool and cultured son of money who even when mocked by Walter Lee still knows who he is. Nnamdi plays the part strongly centered within himself.

Chris Bizub as Karl Linder is the uncomfortable white guy who drew the short straw. His unpleasant task is to convince the Younger family not to move even if it takes buying them out. His furtive looks and little twitches sell the part. Bobby Williams is on stage for a short time as Bobo, the messenger carrying bad news. He does a fine turn as victim and fellow commiserator. Rounding out the cast are Keith Benford and Earl Lane who appear briefly as the moving men.

The adult themes and long sit time of 2½ hours make this a bad choice for the younger children. If you consider your child in the category of a young adult, this could be a good introduction to the wonders of classic theater.

As controversy charges the emotions of our nation in regard to who "deserves" to live where, this work is a stern reminder of the basic freedoms enjoyed by us all. This is classic theater at its very best and just as hard hitting today as it was 60 years ago. Fill the seats for this one!

A Raisin in the Sun, through February 17, 2019, at Ensemble Theatre, 2843 Washington Blvd., Cleveland OH. Tickets may be purchased by calling 216-321-2930 or online at

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