Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
From the start, A Raisin in the Sun broke new ground. It was the first play produced on Broadway written by an African American woman, Lorraine Hansberry, as well as the first to be helmed by an African American director, Lloyd Richards. The fact that it was a non-musical play depicting the day-to-day lives and concerns of Black urban residents, and that out of a cast of twelve, only one character was white meant one thing for sure–the play would be a quick flop. At least that's what most people, including the playwright and producer Phillip Rose, expected
Instead, it met with critical and popular acclaim, running for 530 performances, and drew Black audiences to Broadway in numbers far greater than had ever before been seen. Since then, A Raisin in the Sun has continued to thrive by way of a national tour, a successful 1961 film, two major Broadway revivals, a Best Musical Tony Award winning musical adaptation called Raisin, and in productions at regional theaters, community theaters, and school theater programs everywhere.
Its story of an ordinary African American family's quest for a life of dignity–in particular around the questions of home ownership and wealth–remains pertinent today, as illustrated by data that show continued disparities between the well-being of predominately Black and predominantly white neighborhoods along such indicators as home ownership, infant mortality, health, education, and accumulated wealth. However, one can read reports of these societal issues to get the facts. What Hansberry did A Raisin in the Sun was give those facts faces, with personal strengths and flaws, and an entrenched love that make their story unique to their particular circumstances and relationships while at the same time gives them a universality that reaches into the heart and mind of audience members from all stripes of the human rainbow.
The particulars involve the Youngers, an African American family in the 1950s who live on the south side of Chicago. They are matriarch Lena Younger, her grown son Walter Lee, his wife Ruth, Water Lee and Ruth's 10-year-old son Travis, and Beneatha, who is Lena's daughter and Walter Lee's younger sister. They live in a two bedroom apartment: Lena and Beneatha share a bedroom and Travis sleeps on the couch in the living room–when he's not being kept awake by Walter Lee and his friends ranting over get-rich schemes. Lena and Ruth both do day work, cleaning white people's homes, and Walter Lee is a chauffeur for a well-to-do white man. Only Beneatha has chartered a course to a brighter future, attending college with plans to go to medical school. Of course, that will take money.
Money is the crucible around which A Raisin in the Sun turns. Lena's recently deceased husband left her with $10,000 in life insurance. We meet the Youngers on the day before that check is to arrive. Beneatha has confidence some will be set aside for her to pay for medical school. Walter Lee and his cronies hatch a plan to invest it in a liquor store, in spite of pious Lena's protestations against enabling folks to drink. Her idea is that a house, with space to spread out and a yard of their own, will give the family the stability and security it needs. But, though $10,000 went much farther in the 1950s than it does today, the only house Lena can afford turns out to be in all-white Clybourne Park.
The intertwined themes range from neighborhood integration to the damage done by male pride to a marriage gone adrift to the harm done to a society that places the pursuit of money above all others, and to assimilation. The latter stems from Beneatha juggling two suitors. One is a neighborhood boy from a well-off family who aspires to become a successful businessman, just like white sons do. The other is a Nigerian classmate who introduces Beneatha to African clothing, music, dance, natural hair, and values. A Raisin in the Sun was probably one of the first theater works to make a direct connection between Africa and the lives of Black Americans, a connection drawn more vividly here than in other productions of the play I have seen.
Another way in which this production is unique is the restoration of the character of Mrs. Johnson. She was conceived as the neighbor in the apartment building with the Youngers competing for use of the lone bathroom which is out in the hall. She appears in a second act scene, skewering what she believes to be the foolishness of the Youngers' plans. The scene remains in print, but was cut from the original Broadway production and subsequent revivals, and its restoration here is all for the better, especially as played to the hilt by Jamecia Bennet, a bona fide crowd pleaser. Aside from the comic relief she brings to the proceedings, her posturing offers a clear distinction between those who have the courage to face change–like the Youngers–and those who do no more than talk.
There is no shortage of crowd-pleasing performances among the terrific cast. While Lena, as the surviving elder, is head of the family, the core of the play spirals around Walter Lee, whose shocking disappointments cause him to change more than any other character. James T. Alfred does a superb job of making Walter Lee seem deserving of our support, even when he makes terrible choices, expressing a spectrum of emotions, all of which play as authentic. Take, for instance, a scene with his son Travis (and adorable Joshaviah Kawala on opening night), where Alfred reveals Walter Lee's hopes and dreams, not for himself, but for his son. Just beautiful!
Tonia Jackson does not shy away from making Lena Younger a force of nature, forever dispensing wisdom, finding the bigger view of things, summoning love from a bottomless heart, and crying out when the world has wronged her or her loved ones. We can see that she has earned her position through a hard-lived life. Anita Welch, new to Twin Cities stages, is pitch perfect as Ruth, exasperated by Walter Lee's schemes and fearful that it is draining the love out of their marriage. Her feelings are always on view, as when she tries putting in a good word for the liquor store scheme with Lena, even after totally denouncing the idea to Walter's face–because she just has to do something for him.
Nubia Monks is marvelous as Beneatha Younger, full of life, eager to take the world by the neck and shake it up. The character, a "modern" young woman, who wears trousers and espouses atheism, is said to be modeled on the playwright herself, and that quality of someone on a journey of moral discover comes across. Ernest Bentley is thoroughly pleasing as the Nigerian, Joseph Asagai, opening up new vistas to Beneatha's searching eyes. As the status-seeking George Murchison, Chaundre Hall-Broomfield succeeds in projecting the intolerable smarminess of someone who has not had to struggle in life. As Karl Lindner, a white fellow from Clybourne Park, Terry Hempleman projects a modest, soft-spoken niceness that does little to disguise the deeply held racism that he carries with him.
The stage set by Regina Garcia is terrific, a room that untidily combines the Youngers' living, dining, and kitchen space topped by the piles of other south side Chicago apartments crushed together. Samantha Fromm Haddow's costumes are a perfect match for each character's persona, especially the array of fashions Beneatha sports–though one wonders how she affords them. Alan C. Edwards has lit the show beautifully. Van's direction keeps all elements moving fluidly, so that even major turns of events seem to have evolved organically from everything that came before. Though not credited as choreographer, her background in that field can be seen to splendid effect in several scenes involving dance and movement.
No question about it, A Raisin in the Sun is a monumental American play, and the Guthrie honors it with fully realized production that shows its love for the characters on stage, that honors a brilliant playwright who died much too young at 34, and that bestows respect and appreciation upon its audience. Even if you have seen A Raisin in the Sun before, you shouldn't miss this production.
A Raisin in the Sun runs through June 5, 2022, at the Guthrie Theater's McGuire Proscenium Stage, 618 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis MN. Tickets are $26.00 to $80.00. Seniors (65+), college students (with ID) - $3.00-$6.00 off per ticket. Public rush line for unsold seats 15 - 30 minutes before performance, up to four tickets, $20.00 - $25,00, cash or check only. For tickets and information, call 612-377-2224 or visit GuthrieTheater.org.
Playwright: Lorraine Hansberry; Director: Austene Van; Scenic Design: Regina Garcia; Costume Design: Samantha Fromm Haddow; Lighting Design: Alan C. Edwards; Sound Design: Jeff Lowe Bailey; Dramaturg: Taylor Barfield ; Voice and Dialect Coach: Evamarii Johnson; Fight Director: Annie Enneking; Intimacy Coach: Sasha Smith; Resident Casting: Jennifer Liestman; NYC Casting Consultant: McCorkle Casting, Ltd.; Stage Manager: Laura Topham; Assistant Stage Manager: Lori Lundquist; Assistant Director: Andre Shoals.
Cast: James T. Alfred (Walter Lee Younger), Jamecia Bennet (Mrs. Johnson), Ernest Bentley (Joseph Asagai), Darius Dotch (moving man), Chaundre Hall-Broomfield (George Murchison), Terry Hempleman (Karl Lindner), Tonia Jackson (Lena Younger), Joshaviah Kawala (Travis Younger *), Adolphe Magloire Jr. (Travis Younger *), Nubia Monks (Beneatha Younger), Darrick Mosley (Bobo), Anita Welch (Ruth Younger). *Alternate performances