Regional Reviews: Connecticut & the Berkshires
A Raisin in the Sun
Set in a Chicago South Side neighborhood during the early 1950s, the Younger family has recently lost patriarch Big Walter. He has left a $10,000 life insurance check and his widow Lena (S. Epatha Merkerson) is determined to utilize a significant portion of the money to get them out of their cramped apartment. Her daughter Beneatha (Nikiya Mathis), who is bright and progressive, hopes for an allotment so she can get to medical school and then save others. Walter Lee (Francois Battiste) is Beneatha's sharp and shark-like brother who hopes to make an investment in a liquor store. Walter's living, for years, has involved driving around people and he is envisioning something much bigger. He can be vociferous and bull-headed, too. Still, Walter Lee has sufficient dimension to become a sympathetic character. Lena (often called Mama) has been suffering for too long, but she retains the acuity to see that the money is not spent frivolously. She will get this group into a house in Clybourne Parkwhich happens to be all-white.
Karl Lindner (Joe Goldammer) comes to visit the Youngers and euphemistically recommends that they not settle in their area of choice. A neighborhood association will gladly buy them out. He reveals a truer self when he learns that he is no longer welcome and is nearly booted out of the place.
Two men influence Beneatha. One is her boyfriend George Murchison (Kyle Beltran); the other is Joseph Asagai (Joshua Echebiri). The latter gives Beneatha a sense of her "background" in Africa while George seems to have assimilated into and with white culture.
A Raisin in the Sun is very much about tension-ridden people, of either lower or lower middle class, desperately wanting to move up in terms of finances and possibilities. Walter Lee is caught in the syndrome and he can behave badly to most anyone and that has included women. As the production evolves, however, he is more humanely assertive. He does want to have the option to succeed, to reject the notion that the symbolic deck of cards before him is rigged beforehand and that he will never prosper. Perhaps his drive and gusto can set him free.
The Younger apartment is the central location in the play. Scenic designer Clint Ramos jams the living space with much of what the Youngers own. Lena knows that struggle has kept them together. They must continue, though, to pursue a more favorable existence. She has not given up. The play's title is derived from a Langston Hughes poem when the writer wondered if dreams compress and shrivel "like a raisin in the sun." Lindner's approach and his quest to keep the Youngers out of the new neighborhood serves to galvanize the family. They recognize the discrimination behind his message and they react vigorously and with newfound spirit.
This is a potent, visionary play and O'Hara fuels it further by adding fresh movement and music. The director's ending, too, is fully startling. It is unexpected, abrupt and also wrenching.
Battiste (as Walter Lee) and Mathis (as Beneatha) lead an array of heartening, brave and precise performers. The production and its values soar at every turn.
Lorraine Hansberry wrote this script when she was 29 years of age and she would die six years later. She left this world far too early but this work is (sadly) all too relevant now. Racial prejudice continues. One may argue percentages and discuss how far we've come or where we need to be. The pertinence and contemporary feel of A Raisin in the Sun are undeniable and genuine.
A Raisin in the Sun, through July 13, 2019, at Williamstown Theatre Festival's Main Stage, 1000 Main St., Williamstown MA. For tickets, call 413-458-3253 or visit wtfestival.org.