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A Raisin In the Sun
by Lorraine Hansberry
Directed by Ed Smith
The Black Rep
November 30, 2014

Ronald L. Conner, Thyais Walsh Photo by Stewart Goldstein The Black Rep

Ronald L. Conner, Thyais Walsh
Photo by Stewart Goldstein
The Black Rep

A Raisin In the Sun is a classic of the American stage. It’s so widely respected that it’s often assigned reading for high school and middle school English classes, which is why I brought my teenage son to the latest production at the Black Rep. He had read it in class last year, and it had been one of his favorite assignments. Sadly, I have to admit I’d never actually seen a production of the play before, so it was an introduction of sorts to me.  One of the frustrating things about being a theatre fan is that no matter how many great plays I see, there are always a few that I manage to miss for whatever reason, and I’m very glad I was able to finally see this remarkable play at the Black Rep. Not only is Lorraine Hansberry’s script still as vibrant and timely as ever; the excellent cast and direction in this production makes it a must-see for anyone who appreciates great theatre.

There is so much going on in this multi-layered story that it’s somewhat difficult to adequately describe. The story follows the Younger family–a working-class African American family who share cramped living quarters in a run-down Chicago apartment. The matriarch, Lena (Andrea Frye) is expecting an insurance payment from her late husband’s policy, and her son Walter Lee (Ronald L. Conner), who works as a chauffeur,  has high hopes for investing the money on a risky business venture, despite his mother’s wishes to the contrary.  Sharing the small living space with Walter and his mother are Walter’s wife Ruth (Thyais Walsh), their school-aged son Travis (Keshon Campbell) and Walter’s younger sister, college student Beneatha (Sharisa Whatley), who has hopes of attending medical school. While Walter bemoans his station in life and always seeks to find a get-rich-quick scheme, Ruth yearns for a better relationship with her increasingly neglectful husband, and Lena remembers the ideals of her late husband and hopes for a better life for her children. Meanwhile, Beneatha examines her own ideals and future hopes as she is courted by two very different men, the wealthy, complacent George Murchison (Nicolas G. Tyborn), and Nigerian student Joseph Asagai (L. A. Williams), who encourages Beneatha to embrace her cultural heritage and has idealistic hopes for change in his own country. There’s also Karl Lindner (Joe Hanrahan), a white “neighborhood representative” who presents a tempting but highly questionable proposal to the family upon their attempt to move into a bigger house in an all-white neighborhood.

Although society has changed in many ways since the play’s setting in the late 1950’s, unfortunately a lot of the issues dealt with in the play are still very present today.  Racial injustice, both personally and systemic, is still a very real issue in today’s world, and the current tensions in St. Louis and across the country are evidence of that. Lorraine Hansberry’s script is extremely well-structured and manages to achieve the feat of putting the focus on issues affecting people while keeping the people at the forefront. The people here are fully realized characters with very well-structured story arcs, and in the hands of director Ed Smith and the immensely strong cast, these characters are brought to vivid, achingly real life.  We sympathize, empathize and root for them. We want Lena’s hopes for her children to be realized.  We wish the world was a different place, and that the dilemma presented by Lindner’s character wasn’t a reality.  The play also manages to make fully realized characters out of two important people who never actually appear onstage–Walter’s scheming friend Willy Harris and his deceased but never forgotten father, “Big Walter”.  These figures have important roles in the action even though we don’t see them.

The cast here is ideal across the board, led by Frye’s indelible performance as Lena.  Exhibiting a strong sense of individual and family pride, dignity, and love, her Lena is the emotional center of this production.  Conner is equally memorable as Walter, convincingly bringing the character’s mixture of frustration and hope to the stage, and bringing real strength and energy to his ultimate confrontation with Lindner.  Walsh as Ruth is excellent as the concerned, and exhausted, wife and mother, especially in her scenes with Conner and Frye, and Whatley embodies the combination of idealism and exasperation with the state of society as Beneatha.  Her scenes with Williams, charming as Asagai, are a highlight of this production.  There are also strong performances from Tayborn as George, Campbell as young Travis, Philip Dixon in a small role as Walter’s friend Bobo, and Hanrahan in the difficult role of the outwardly polite but inwardly weaselly Lindner.  It’s a cast not only of great individual performances, but of excellent group chemistry as well, and there is never a dull moment as we spend over two hours with this family and share their hopes, disappointments and struggles.

The technical elements of this production are also of extremely high quality. The set, designed by Jim Burwinkel, is so meticulously crafted as to not only provide a suitable backdrop for the play’s action, but also to shed additional light on who these characters are as people. The apartment is small–clearly too small to adequately accommodate the five people who share it, and the plaster on the walls is obviously cracking, but this place has also just as obviously been as well-maintained as possible. With family photos one the walls, and the tiny kitchen space cramped but organized, the set is a witness particularly to Lena’s care, attention, and above all, love for her family.  Linda Kennedy’s costumes are fittingly styled to the period, and individually suited to each character, and Burwinkel’s lighting is focused and appropriately atmospheric.

As much as I regret never having seen this play before, I’m glad that it was this production that introduced me to it on stage.   It’s a powerful representation of one family’s struggles, but also a reflection of how far we still need to progress as a society.  In a world where racial tensions and inequities are still very much a reality, a play like this is as important as ever, and the Black Rep’s production is a stunning realization of this essential work of theatre. Whether you have seen or read this play before or not, this is a production not to be missed.

Ronald L. Conner, Andrea Frye Photo by Stewart Goldstein The Black Rep

Ronald L. Conner, Andrea Frye
Photo by Stewart Goldstein
The Black Rep

 

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The Trials of Brother Jero
by Wole Soyinka
Directed by Ron Himes
The Black Rep
April 11, 2014

Ron Himes Photo by Stewart Goldstein The Black Rep

Ron Himes
Photo by Stewart Goldstein
The Black Rep

The last play of the Black Rep’s 2013-2014 season is also the first play I’ve seen from this well known and much acclaimed St. Louis theatre company. This production of Nobel Prize-winning Nigerian Playwright Wole Soyinka’s satirical comedy (originally produced in 1960) has made me wish even more that I had been able to see some of their previous plays.  It’s a visually striking and well-presented representation of Soyinka’s satire of life in his home country, well-realized by strong direction and a good cast.

Telling the story of an itinerant self-proclaimed prophet, The Trials of Brother Jero depicts a day in the life of Jero (Ron Himes) and showing his influence on life in his small fishing village and his manipulation of people and situations around him.  Jero is an opportunist who freely (and proudly) admits manipulating his followers for personal gain.  On this particularly eventful day, Jero narrates his trials and tribulations after his disgruntled former mentor (Phillip Dixon) pronounces a curse on Jero, proclaiming that Jero’s downfall will be brought about by women, or “daughters of Eve”.  Jero then sets about trying to disprove this pronouncement while displaying his simultaneous attraction and disdain for women, as well as his dominance over his most devout follower, a frustrated government-employed messenger named Chume (A. C. Smith), whose strong-willed merchant wife Amope (Velma Austin) camps outside Jero’s house to demand payment for a cape she sold him months before. Chume, however, has no idea that the man Amope is angry with is Jero. This situation and others provide for quite an eventful day for Jero, as his own attitudes and actions and those of his followers serve as the focus of a broadly humorous look at aspects of Nigerian society in the time the play was written.

This relatively short play is well-realized by the production team at the Black Rep, and is particularly successful in its visual presentation and the performances of its leading performers, as well as its strong sense of musicality.  The set and lighting, designed by Jim Burwinkel, and the colorful costumes by Marissa Perry effectively set the tone and atmosphere of the play. The lighting is particularly striking, and the relatively simple set provides the proper backdrop for the play’s action.  I was particularly impressed by the musical sequences in the introduction and the conclusion of the play, as well as in a particularly memorable scene depicting one of Jero’s prayer meetings. A combination of strong ensemble singing, Linda Kennedy’s choreography and Arthur Moore’s expertly played drums adds greatly to the overall style and mood of the piece.

As the scheming,  self-centered Jero, Himes (who also directed the play) is an ideal centerpiece to the production. Even despite the character’s obvious flaws, Himes makes him unquestionably entertaining, displaying great comic timing and a sense of over-the-top grandiosity that is fun to watch, particularly in his scenes with Smith (in an equally strong performance as the clueless and misogynistic Chume) and Matthew C. Galbreath as a particularly gullible government official with whom Jero crosses paths.  Austin, as the determined and outspoken Amope, also gives a strong performance, and her scenes with Smith are a comic highlight.  The rest of the ensemble lends good support to the leading players for the most part, although there were a few performers in some of the smaller roles who could have shown more energy and presence.  Overall, though, this is a mostly well-paced satirical farce that brings out the more ridiculous facets of its characters to outrageous comic effect.

I had been unfamiliar with the plays of Soyinka prior to seeing this play, and I’m grateful to the Black Rep for bringing this acclaimed playwright’s works to the  St. Louis audience. Although this play’s tone is broadly comic, Soyinka gives the audience a lot to think about in terms of what was going on in Nigerian culture at the time, and particularly the influence of religious charlatans, ineffectual government leaders and the roles of and attitudes toward women in that society.  It’s a strongly written play with broadly drawn characters and situations, shedding light on specific details of  a culture with which modern-day Americans may be unfamiliar.  It’s an educational, thought-provoking and, ultimately, very entertaining production from The Black Rep.

Velma Austin, A.C. Smith Photo by Stewart Goldstein The Black Rep

Velma Austin, A.C. Smith
Photo by Stewart Goldstein
The Black Rep

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