Quote of the Day: May you see yourself in this family in some way, no matter your ZIP code, and be moved to action. Austene Van, director of A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, on stage at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, MN through June 5, 2022.
When the lights come up on this play, it is morning in the Younger’s tiny apartment on the South Side of Chicago, 1953. Ruth Younger (Anita Welch) is waking everyone up, starting with her 10-year-old son Travis, who’s bed is the couch in the living room. She chases him quickly out of bed and down the hall because the bathroom, shared by other tenants, is open. Next, she yells for her husband Walter Lee Younger (James T. Alfred) to get up and be ready to get into the bathroom as soon as Travis is done, because they can hear their upstairs neighbor Mrs. Johnson (Jamecia Bennett) stirring, and she’ll be down in a minute to claim her time in the bathroom. Walter grumbles about his job as a chauffeur for a rich white man. Travis begs to get a job as a bag boy at a local grocery store, but his mama won’t let him, so his dad gives him extra money for the bus, or a taxi, trying to be extravagant, then being short himself for bus fare.
Walter Lee’s mother and college age sister Beneatha (Nubia Monks) also live in the apartment. She has dreams of becoming a doctor, and is dating two different men. Joseph Asagai (Ernest Bentley) is from Nigeria, and she admires his authentic blackness, his music, his traditional dress and customs. She is also courted by an American man George Murchison (Chaundre Hall-Broomfield) who is pursing a higher degree and likes to talk smart, especially around Walter Lee.
At the heart of the show, and matriarch of the family, is Lena Younger (Tonia Jackson). Her husband Big Walter has recently passed away, and they’re waiting for a $10,000.00 insurance check to arrive. I’ve always been struck by the brilliance of opening this play with the anticipation of the check. The entire family hitches their dreams to this sudden windfall. They believe it’s the answer to all their problems. Lena wants to buy a home to get the family out of that cramped apartment, to give her children more than what she and Big Walter had, and to have something to pass down to future generations. I love the scene where she sits Travis on her lap and tells him that she bought a house for him, “It’s going to be yours when you get to be a man.”
Ruth is ecstatic about the house. Beneatha is glad that she gets part of the money for medical school. Travis is excited to have his own room and a yard to play in. Walter Lee is not so enthusiastic. He wants to use the money to invest in a liquor store. He wants to partner with his buddies and be his own boss. He has a vicious fight with both his wife and his mother about it. Lena wrestles with two truths, providing for her family and empowering her children. She sees her legacy carried forth through her children and grandchildren. She sees the house as psychical evidence of their existence and prosperity. She encourages her daughter to go against societies’ expectations and become a strong, independent woman who is a doctor. She doesn’t quite agree with Walter Lee’s dreams, but she wants him to realize his full potential as a man and a provider. She has to turn over some of her control, and money, in order to do that.
Then, comes the visit from Karl Lindner (Terry Hempleman) from the Clybourne Park “welcoming committee.” Lena has put the down payment on a house in his all-white neighborhood. They’d rather not see any change come to their area and drive down the property values. Lindner offers them a nice pay out if they’d reconsider. Every time he said, “you people,” I cringed. The setting is 1953 and red-lining is at its peak.
Hansberry’s play examines complex family dynamics. It’s also about the “American Dream” of owning your house and/or business, improving yourself through education. Daring to dream big and having the courage and resources to pursue it. She brings to light social and racial injustices. Lorraine Hansberry was an activist and used her voice as a playwright to call attention to these injustices. Her parents bought a house in an all-white Chicago neighborhood in 1937, and she narrowly escaped serious harm when someone threw a brick through their window so hard it embedded in the wall. A Raisin in the Sun was the first play written by a black woman to appear on Broadway at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on March 11, 1959. It was nominated for four Tony Awards.
Director Austene Van directs this outstanding cast. Tonia Jackson as Lena is a force as the powerful matriarch. It felt very appropriate to be watching this production on Mother’s Day! James T. Alfred as Walter Lee is terrific. He’s a hard character to like, and yet, Alfred brings out his complex personality and you gain understanding of who he is, his own dreams and frustrations. Anita Welch plays Ruth as both caring and strong. Nubia Monks brings home all the spirit of Beneatha, who can sometimes be annoying, and yet, so determined. Jamecia Bennett provides some much needed comedic breaks as Mrs. Johnson. The entire cast is terrific. The scene design by Regina Garcia is like a cut-out of an apartment complex, with an upstairs, side hallway to the bathroom (although, not scene by audiences on the left of the stage), and the tight quarters where all the Youngers live. Nice details to set the time and place. The costumes by Samantha Fromm Haddow are wonderful, period specific, and really enhance the experience. Sound design by Jeff Lowe Bailey includes great backdrop music, and lighting by Alan C. Edwards helps us focus. All around a tremendous production of this classic play. Get there by June 5, if you can!
A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, directed by Austene Van, is playing at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis through June 5, 2022. It is both a timely and classic play.
The documentary Rondo: Beyond the Pavement is about how the I-94 construction devastated a Black neighborhood in St. Paul, MN.
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Journaling Prompt: Who are the strong people in your family?
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Sad to think it was ever like that, isn’t it?