‘A Raisin in the Sun’
Through May 7
1101 Sixth St., S.W.
“A Raisin in the Sun” is a family drama that’s both intimate and epic. Set solely in a cramped tenement apartment on Chicago’s Southside, playwright Lorraine Hansberry’s groundbreaking 1959 work explores the struggles of the African-American Younger family as they bump up against racism, classicism and conflicting ambitions.
After presenting definitive works by playwrights Lillian Hellman and Joan Didion, Arena Stage is now nearing the close of its season with Hansberry’s classic. Staged in the round by Tazewell Thompson, who’s internationally known for directing both theater and opera, the production crackles with compelling performances, particularly New York actress Lizan Mitchell who plays Lena Younger, the aging family matriarch. She’s not the lumbering Lena found in many interpretations but rather a feisty, slender woman, filled with humor and concern. Her phenomenal portrayal embodies the character’s southern sharecropper roots along with her more modern city experience.
The play opens almost like any other Younger morning with family members readying for school and work, and jockeying to be the next to get into the hall bathroom they share with neighbors. But this day is different because there’s talk of a big check expected in the post. Through death, Mr. Younger, a lifelong laborer, has offered his family opportunity. As the story unfolds, dreams that hopefully won’t be deferred are revealed: new home, new business and medical school.
Restless and angry, Lena’s son Walter Lee (Will Cobbs) wants to use the money to buy a liquor store. At 35, he’s tired of chauffeuring businessmen and wants to become one himself. His affected but charming sister Beneatha (the delightful Joy Jones) expects some of the money to go toward her medical school tuition. But Lena and Walter Lee’s wife Ruth (played as tired but cheerful by local actor Dawn Ursula) wouldn’t mind a nice little house where Ruth’s young son Travis (Jeremiah Hasty) would have a bedroom.
The Younger’s shabby two-bedroom apartment is a character in itself. Designer Donald Eastman does his best to create a cramped space defined by heavy worn furniture in Arena’s cavernous Fichlander Stage. Lena and Walter Sr. took the flat early in their marriage with the idea of staying for one year, but life took hold, time passed and they never left. It’s a rat trap says Ruth, but Lena’s relationship with her home is more complicated. For her, it’s a safe, memory-filled haven where she is called mama and her word is law. It’s where suitors call for her daughter Beneatha who’s currently juggling George Murchison (Keith L. Royal Smith), an assimilated bougie college student, and Asagai (Bueka Uwemedimo), a far-thinking Nigerian intellectual. And it’s where Walter Lee’s pal Bobo (Mack Leamon) and the rare white visitor Mr. Linder (Thomas Adrian Simpson) come separately to deliver bad news.
The mood is further set with Fabian Obispo’s original jazz music, and Harry Nadal’s costumes: George’s white bucks, Walter Lee’s cool jacket and Beneatha’s slim skirts.
After seeing “A Raisin in the Sun” on Broadway, famed gay African American-writer James Baldwin was impressed by his pal Hansberry’s effort: “Never before, in the entire history of the American theater, had so much of the truth of black people’s lives been seen on the stage.” Others took note too. At 29, Hansberry was the first black playwright and the youngest American to win a New York Critics’ Circle award.
But it wasn’t until long after her tragically premature death from cancer at 34 that the groundbreaking playwright was revealed to be gay. In various letters she wrote to the Ladder, the first subscription-based lesbian publication in the United States, she touched on the interconnected struggles of women, lesbians and African Americans, and describes herself as a “heterosexually married lesbian.”
Arena’s production plumbs both the well-made, sometimes-sentimental play’s crowd-pleasing aspects — mostly relatable family and generational squabbles — and the sting of its equally relevant and searing contemporary social issues. But on exiting the theater into the night, mostly you’ll remember mama.