“What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?”—Langston Hughes
The greatest American plays of the Twentieth Century are domestic dramas—Death of a Salesman, Awake and Sing, Long Day’s Journey into Night. To the roster of Miller, Odets and O’Neill, the name of Lorraine Hansberry is etched in stone. Her singular triumph, A Raisin in the Sun, was the first play by an African American woman to be produced on Broadway. It took producer Philip Rose over a year to get the financing for the play and it headlined Sydney Poitier and Ruby Dee, opening at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in 1959. A stirring story of a South Side Chicago family struggling on the edge of poverty while dreaming of a better life, A Raisin in the Sun features finely etched, passionate characters of tremendous emotional depth. They are noble and flawed, wise and foolish. They struggle with the exigencies of life.
In the 1950s, Matriarch Lena “Mama” Younger (the extraordinary Starletta DuPois) shares a small apartment in South Side Chicago with her son, Walter Lee (Redaric Williams), his wife Ruth (Angelle Brooks) and their son, Travis (Jaden Martin). Lena’s daughter, Beneatha (Charlotte Williams) is a feisty, outspoken pre-med college student. Walter Lee works as a chauffeur, a job he loathes. He is restless, unsatisfied and ambitious. Ruth is withdrawn and sometimes severe and impatient with her husband. Their marriage is brittle. The anticipated arrival of a life insurance check in the amount of ten thousand dollars, a legacy from Lena’s late husband, a laborer who literally worked himself to death to provide for his family, may be a game changer for this family. It could finance Beneatha’s dream of becoming a doctor; it might finance the purchase of a house. Walter Lee covets the cash as an opportunity to become an entrepreneur. He has schemed with two cronies to purchase a liquor store. The money is dynamite, and Walter Lee has a match.
Courted by two young men, Beneatha keeps them both at bay. George (Kristian Kordula) is the handsome young scion of a wealthy family. A college student and fancy dresser with not much of interest to say, he bores Beneatha who keeps him at arm’s length. He doesn’t appreciate her intelligence and is frustrated when she rebuffs his amorous advances.
Joseph Asagai (Mohirah Hall), a Nigerian student with a social conscience, wants to return to his country after graduation and help boot out the colonialists, improve the lives of the people of his village and perhaps become a great man. He calls to mind a leader like the martyred Patrice Lumumba. Beneatha clearly likes the idealistic young man, and he sparks with her.
As Karl Lindner, the representative of the owners association in the neighborhood the family wants to move to, Josh Drennen is obsequious, nervous and clearly uncomfortable in the Younger’s apartment, especially since he is trying to dissuade them from moving in.
This ensemble company is superb with excellent performers across the board. Under the sure-handed direction of Lita Gaithers Owens, the cast delivers an exquisitely nuanced performance that is absorbing and powerfully affecting. A traditional three-act play, this production is performed with one intermission a little more than half way through. It comes in at a little less than three riveting hours.
The show is handsomely mounted with a realistic set by Ryan Wilson and lighting by Mike Reilly. Sound by Chip Bolcik adds much to the production with a playlist of jazz classics that reinforce the drama. Costuming by Sarah Figoten Wilson is exquisite, period perfect and colorful. And the detailed set dressing and props by Eric Barron lend period authenticity, especially the milk bottles and Falstaff beer bottles.
A Raisin in the Sun is an American classic and this production is as good as it gets. The show runs through September 17 at the Ruskin Group Theatre, 3000 Airport Avenue in Santa Monica.