A RAISIN IN THE SUN: “What happens to a dream deferred?”
Some Thoughts & A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis
By: Virginia Repertory Theatre
At: The November Theatre at Virginia Repertory Center, 114 W. Broad St., RVA 23220
Performances: February 16 – March 11, 2018; Previews February 14 & 15; Pre-Show Discussion Sunday, February 25; Post-Show Talk Backs Thursday February 22 & March 1
Ticket Prices: $30-50; $15 for students with ID
Info: (804) 282-2620 or va-rep.org
When A Raisin in the Sun debuted on Broadway in 1959, it marked the first time the work of an African American woman was produced on the Great White Way. Who knew, when Broadway was given that nickname in 1902, how ironic it would later become. The Great White Way did not refer to racial segregation, but rather referred to the mile or so of the New York City theater district that was illuminated with Brush arc lamps, making it one of the first streets in the USA to be illuminated with electric lights.
A Raisin in the Sun is considered the seminal work of playwright Lorraine Hansberry, although it was initially considered a risky investment, with its focus on black life and there was concern as to whether African American life issues could be considered universal. Fast forward 59 years. The Richmond opening of the VaRep production of A Raisin in the Sun coincides with the opening of the Disney movie, Black Panther, and there is considerable Internet chatter as to whether white audiences can relate to an African superhero. Coincidence or serendipity; the more things change, the more they remain the same.
A domestic drama that offers sharp insights into black American life, A Raisin in the Sun has the occasional moment of humor that helps us navigate through the day-to-day setbacks and life-changing tragedies of life. Interestingly, during intermission, one friend remarked that during the previous night’s preview, the audience laughed as if they thought the play was a comedy. After the opening night show, while retrieving our car from the parking lot, another theater-goer remarked to me how much she appreciated the humor. This second encounter and comment gave me pause, and I wondered whether this play reads differently to different audiences, based on race and generation. For me, it was and is a very realistic play and the character of Lena or Mama, especially as played by Trezana Beverley, reminds me of my own grandmother, who was born in 1913 and was 46 in 1959, placing her in roughly the same generation as the elder Mrs. Younger character. The cadence of their speech, their very posture was the same; these women were matriarchs whose word was law. One look from their laser eyes could stop a word that was halfway out of your mouth and send it ricocheting back into your throat where it would lodge and choke you back into the realization of who was really in charge in this house.
Whether you approach it from the emic perspective of one who sees a reflection of their own family or the etic perspective of one who is looking into the window of black life, A Raisin in the Sun can be a powerful and intense theatrical experience. Running nearly three hours with one intermission, it takes its time developing, allowing the intricacies of the characters and situations to sink in, to marinate, and it does so without seeming to drag or get weighed down. This I credit to Hansberry’s writing, the intimate direction of Dr. Tawnya Pettiford-Waites, and the cast, led by Tony Award winning actress Trezana Beverley as Lena “Mama” Younger, Jerold E. Solomon as Walter Lee Younger, and Katrinah Carol Lewis as Ruth Younger. (Beverley was the first African American actress to receive the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play, for the 1977 production of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf.)
Walter Lee has dreams. Having spent most of his life as a chauffeur, he is at a crisis. Now 35 years old, he and his wife live with his mother and his sister in a one-bedroom tenement apartment. His 10-year-old son, Travis, sleeps on the living room sofa, and the family shares a bathroom in the hall with the other families on the same floor of their apartment building. The recent death of Walter Lee’s father has the family anxiously anticipating the delivery of a $10,000 insurance policy check – the most money any of them has ever seen. What’s to be done with this money? The family could use a house of their own. Walter Lee’s sister, Beneatha needs tuition money to attend medical school. Walter Lee needs capital to invest in a liquor store business venture and has two partners waiting in the wings – Bobo, played by Joseph Marshall, and the unseen and unscrupulous Willy.
Beverley, who has played this role before, is authentic, strong, and steady as Mama Younger. She thoroughly embodies the strong but loving Christian matriarch, who wears her housedresses like royal robes and doesn’t leave home without a proper hat. When she does raise her voice, or lift her hand to strike, the audience sits at attention and sucks in its collective breath.
Solomon gave a strong performance on opening night but seemed to still be feeling his way as Walter Lee. His transitions from desperately seeking entrepreneur to loving husband to playful brother to intentional father were not always even or believable. Perhaps, internally, the struggle was all too real.
Lewis, who seems to become every character she plays, was visibly controlled as Walter Lee’s wife. It was as if she was a bomb squad technician expertly trained to defuse bombs – only her assignment was a human time bomb, Walter Lee. The interaction between Lewis and Beverley was easy and unaffected, as if they had developed a secret and silent communication out of the necessity of navigating a safe path around Walter Lee.
Jasmine Eileen Coles had one of the most interesting of supporting roles. Beneatha is not just a supporting role, but a pivotal plot point, illustrating the balancing act black Americans must negotiate between assimilating into white American culture or seeking identity in African culture. Her two love interests further reinforce these opposing options. George Murchison, the rich black American, played by Kevin Minor, is smug and secure in his assurance that he has learned to play the game. The purpose of going to college, he assures Beneatha, is not to learn to think, but to get the degree. Walter Lee doesn’t realize how deeply he has really offended George when he teases his about his clothes and his proper speech. Then there is Beneatha’s Nigerian beau, Joseph Asagai, played by Bru Ajueyitsi, whose name and resume suggest that his Nigerian accent is not fake but inherited. Asagai not only reminds Beneatha of her roots, but offers a different perspective of the American dream, seen through the eyes of one whose colonial experience has been, perhaps, somewhat less oppressive or more liberating than the American slave experience and its residual effects. Ajueyitsi delivers his character’s wisdom with warmth and freshness that helps shed light on this family’s darkness.
Matthias Williams, a middle school student, played Travis Younger with sass and assurance. He rotates in the role with Caleb Brown McWhite. Doug Blackburn is the sole white character, Karl Lindner, a representative from the white neighborhood association sent to dissuade the Younger family from becoming the first colored family to move into an all-white neighborhood. As such, he is politely rude and dismissive, issuing a constant stream of what we now call micro-aggressions, such as referring to the Youngers as “you people.”
On the production side, Katherine Field has designed a comfortably shabby 1950s apartment. Lynne Hartman’s lights often yield creative patterns, and Derek Dumais’ sound design includes such details as the sound of the upstairs neighbor’s vacuum cleaner. Emily Tappan’s costumes are era appropriate and include some lovely poufy dresses for Lewis and Coles.
As with past year’s productions such as The Color Purple and Dream Girls, A Raisin in the Sun drew a more racially diverse than one usually sees on a typical night at the November Theatre – or any Richmond-area theater, for that matter. There is no shortage of quality theater in Richmond, but, as the play shows us, and as Karl Lindner suggests, people seem to feel more comfortable staying separate, with their own kind, and maybe it’s long past time for a change.
A Raisin in the Sun is, unfortunately, still as relevant for as it was in 1959, and that a talking point right there. The production runs through March 11, and there are free discussions scheduled before the show on Sunday, February 25 and after the show on Thursday, February 22 and March 1. For those who have seen A Raisin in the Sun years ago, it’s time for another look. For those who’ve never seen it, now is the time.
When A Raisin in the Sun opened on Broadway in 1959, not only was it the first Broadway play written by a black woman, it was also the first Broadway play featuring a black director, Lloyd Richards. The original cast included Sidney Poitier (Walter Lee Younger), Claudia McNeil (his mother, Lena Younger), Ruby Dee (Walter’s wife, Ruth Younger), Diana Sands (Walter’s sister, Beneatha Younger), Ivan Dixon (Joseph Asagai, Beneatha’s Nigerian love interest), Louis Gossett (George Murchison, Beneatha’s wealthy African American love interest), Glynn Turman (Travis Younger, Walter and Ruth’s son), Lonne Elder, III (Bobo, one of Walter’s business partners), Douglas Turner and Ed Hall as the moving men, and John Fiedler as Karl Lindner, the play’s only white character. Ossie Davis later took over the role of Walter, opposite his real-life wife, Ruby Dee. Many of these names are familiar and the play launched the careers of some of these stellar actors.
Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.
Photos by Jason Collins Photography