Saturday, April 9, 2011

A Raisin In The Sun by Lorraine Hansberry

By Joe Straw

Knowing divorce on a first name basis I often wonder:  Given all the emotional difficulties of marriage, what is the strength that holds a family together?

Recently, on a visit, I asked my 11-year-old daughter: “Why do you think they called it A Raisin In The Sun”?

“Because if you put a grape in the sun it turns into a raisin.  If you put a raisin in the sun it doesn’t do anything.”


Ebony Repertory Theatre presents A Raisin In the Sun, a timeless classic by Lorraine Hansberry and directed by Phylicia Rashad at the beautiful Nate Holden Performing Art Center through April 17, 2011.

A Raisin in The Sun is a beautiful production with a wonderful cast in an amaranthine setting.  Wonderfully directed by Phylicia Rashad who incidentally is making her Los Angeles directorial debut.  Rashad has done a masterful job of putting all of this together. 

The play is about the Younger family, surviving in a crowded tenement building.  A family that is on the edge of collapse but tries to overcome mountainous obstacles in order to remain intact. 

The action of the play is set in Chicago’s Southside sometime in the late 1950’s. Ruth Younger (Deidre Henry) goes about waking the family and getting them started for the day. She wakes her husband, a chauffer, Walter Lee Younger (Kevin Carroll) and her young son, Travis (Brandon David Brown) who sleeps in the living room on the couch.  Ruth hustles them into the bathroom they share with the neighbors.

Although they are desperately poor, they are very proud, loving family, and family full of ideas.  Each one in their way has inspirational dreams of getting ahead. (They should all be actors!)  But, in the back of everyone’s thoughts is a $10,000 check that is coming in the mail on Saturday.   An insurance check is the source of newfound hope caused from the passing of the patriarch, dying a few months prior.

Walter is eager to get his hands on the money, for the family.  He dreams of the day when owning a business will help him provide for his family.  If there were not these obstacles in his own home.    

Man says to his woman:  I got me a dream.  His woman say:  Eat your eggs.  Man say:  I got to take hold of this here world, baby! And a woman will say:  Eat your eggs and go to work.  - Walter

Walter enlists Ruth to take his side and to have her talk to his mother.  But if one dream is created, the other must be slightly delayed or even destroyed, and Walter goes about delaying his sister, Beneatha’s (Kenya Alexander) dream of becoming a doctor.

If you so crazy ‘bout messing ‘round with sick people – then go be a nurse like other women – or just get married and be quiet… - Walter

Beneatha wants suitors but not at the risk of spoiling her dreams of becoming a physician.  Her two suitors are George Murchison (Jason Dirden) and Joseph Asagai (Amad Jackson).  George is rich but Beneatha regards him as being “shallow” and wants little to do with him.  On the other end of her romantic endeavors, she is infatuated with Joseph and his African culture.  But, she's conflicted about his African ideas of a woman’s role in life and in the home.  

Meanwhile Ruth suddenly finds herself two months pregnant and she has made a down payment to have that pregnancy eliminated.  Nobody believes she would do that, not Walter, not Mama, and probably not herself.

Later, and after the check has arrived, Mama, can't bear to look at it but has Travis read her the numbers.  The pain being so great she asks Ruth to put it away.  Something happens in the home which makes Mama sneak off and purchase a house in the Clybourne Park neighborhood.

Ruth:  Clybourne Park?  Mama, there ain’t no colored people living in Clybourne Park.

Mama:  Well, I guess there’s going to be some now.

Having destroyed Walter’s dream of owning a business, Mama reconsiders and gives Walter the money left over from the down payment of the house, sixty-five hundred dollars.  Walter is instructed to put three thousand dollars into a savings account for Beneatha’s education fund.  And the rest, $3,500, into a checking accounting with his name on it to do whatever he wants. 

Mama has made a big mistake.

And not to add to their troubles, they have an ominous visitor in Mr. Lindner (Scott Mosenson) from the Clybourne Park Improvement Association.  Mr. Lindner's job is to keep the neighborhood white. 

It is a matter of the people of Clybourne Park believing, rightly or wrongly, as I say, that for the happiness of all concerned that our Negro families are happier when they live in their own communities.   - Lindner

Henry as Ruth Younger has a very nice appealConflicted about bringing another child into the world, her best intention is to hold on to her love from prior days, But moving is just the hope she needs.  Having a home where her kids can play in the yard is just the inspiration she needs to lift herself from the depression she is in.   It is a wonderful moment in the play.

Brown as Travis Younger was cute as the 11-year-old son making his professional stage debut.  He fills the role rather nicely as he begrudgingly walks into the other room to get his whuppin’.

Carroll as Walter Younger had his moments. Certainly it’s not easy to fill the role that Sidney Poitier created on Broadway but, still gave his own unique spin to the character and certainly gave it his all.  One is not entirely sure standing on the table (where his loving son eats) helps his character but Sidney did it so why not he?  To be fair he had a lot of wonderful moments and the emotional horror of losing all of the money was magnificent.    

Alexander as Beneatha was very charming as the doctor in training. The “mutilated” hair gives way to the African Afro later that simplifies her emerging into her unique self.  It is a very nice touch. The dance in the African dress was also very nice.  With all the talk about becoming a doctor, not one step was made in that direction.  (One finds this odd. Was it the writing or the direction?)  Be that as it may, Alexander has a high level of concentration.  Her eyes are very expressive and her thoughts are felt throughout.  She moves about the stage in a manner of a true professional.

There is always something left to love.  And if you ain’t learned that, you ain’t learned nothing. - Mama

Caldwell, as Lena Younger held her own on stage.  There is a quiet intensity in her character as the matriarch.  She keeps the family together always coming back to love and to devotion for the family.  Her force is the water of life, giving moisture to those who will gratefully or ungratefully receive it.  This was an amazing performance and one not to be missed. 

Jackson as Joseph Asagai the African suitor was very motivating and inspirational.   His character shed light on the troubles of the family and put them in a true perspective.  This was a marvelous performance.  So inspirational was Jackson as he left the stage it was if the audience members would walk right out with him.

Let’s face it, baby, your heritage is nothing but a bunch of raggedy-assed spirituals and some grass huts! – George

Dirden as George Murchison has really got one thing on his mind, and it’s sex. (No surprise here.) He doesn’t have Beneatha’s best interest at heart.  And he has no intention of helping her family out, financially or otherwise.  But he also wants a woman who’s smart and not very ambitious.  One suspects, a couple of times to the movies and this relationship is over.  But, if he really wants this relationship to work, he needs to try a lot harder not only as the character but also as the actor. 

Mosenson as Mr. Lindner was ominous as the man who tries to convince the family not to move to Clybourne Park. Tall and imposing and was a physical force that wouldn’t take no for an answer no matter the cost.  Certainly not the nebbish character you’ve come to know but a marvelous characterization nevertheless.

Ellis Williams as Bobo was nice as the business partner who lost all of his life savings as well.  It’s too bad he had to be the messenger to this disastrous news.

Quincy O’Neal, and Bechir Sylvain were the moving men so you’ll know that this story has a happy ending.

Phylicia Rashad directs a marvelous cast in a wonderful production.   Not everything went according to plan on this night but that’s the joy of live theatre.  Missing were the extreme emotional bites that briefly destroys our faith in a character. One example the scene where Walter falls to the floor in emotion anguish needed that extra push from Mama to give that moment the absolute depth of despair.  It is this moment when Mama thinks she has figured out her son but still tests her son to do the right thing in the following scene. Nevertheless, Rashad gives the play her unique touch to this wonderful family drama that is full of life, hope and cherished moments.

There is this underlying force in Hansberry’s play.  Wanting a better life is something most people want, better schools, better jobs, a nice home. The through line of this carefully crafted play propels all of the characters to achieve their own dream. Rashad takes this force and gently guides them on their journey. This force that tears this family apart, equally binds them in the end. Seeing this production, one want to embrace this energy and hold it next to ones heart.

The marvelous Set Design by Michael Ganio shows a tenement building in the Southside of Chicago.  It is bleak and represents people living on top of each other. The wonderful costumes were by Ruth E. Carter.

The 8:00 pm curtain time on opening night became an 8:30 pm curtain. And who could blame them?  The night was like the Academy Awards out there with celebrities meeting and greeting.  Photographer were catching bright smiles and glistening eyes.   What a schmooze fest!  Intermission was the same with no one wanting to sit down until finally an actor came on stage and starting doing her thing, house lights came down and folks started falling into the their seats.

What a happening!  One hopes, when the common folks arrive to see this wonderful production, things have settled down a bit and curtain time starts promptly. 

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