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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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