Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun has been mesmerizing audiences for over 50 years. I will admit that I walked into the theatre with exceedingly high expectations. This play has been a part of my life, personally and academically, for years. I couldn’t wait to see the actors breathe life into the characters. I wasn’t disappointed because this production at Everyman was compelling.
Hansberry’s timeless play chronicles the lives of the African-American Younger family as they navigate the bitter confines of living on the south side of Chicago in the early 1950s. The family’s matriarch, Lena (Mama) has recently received a check from her late husband’s life insurance policy. Mama’s plan to buy a house and get her family out of the cramped space of a one-bedroom apartment collides with that of her son Walter Lee’s dream of owning his own business.
It takes a unique and exceptional cast to brave Hansberry’s material, whose original cast members included Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee and Claudia McNeil. The performers at Everyman Theatre – under the direction of Jennifer L. Nelson – deserve a number of accolades for their candid portrayals of the characters we all know. Veteran actress Lizan Mitchell commands the audience’s attention with her voice, a resounding wisdom amongst her family. Mitchell is a petite woman with a Herculean stage presence. Her Mama is a quiet force, but one who speaks her mind and rules her home with a firm hand. The play’s most powerful and captivating scenes are those with Mitchell in them. When she learns that her only son has perhaps shattered her dream, she remembers her husband’s vacant eyes as he worked himself ‘like a horse’ to provide for the family. Her son’s dismissal of his father’s sacrifice brings her to her knees, and I felt every ounce of her pain.
Another strong performance is from Eric Berryman as Joseph Asagai. African accents, on screen and in theatre performances, sometimes come across as clichéd and overdone, but Berryman nails it, even down to the unwavering optimism and determination to holding steadfast to his own dream as others crumble around him. Dialect coach, Kim James Bey worked magic with this actor.
Dawn Ursula as Ruth and KenYatta Rogers as Walter Lee are both solid portrayals, though I would like to have seen Rogers push himself closer to the edge after he realizes he may have to destroy his mother’s dream after his own has been compromised. When he tells his family that he will take money from Karl Linder (Stephen Patrick Martin), Rogers keeps a part of himself from the material, nearly wraps himself in a shadow as the words escape from his lips. Ursula’s performance is nuanced, every facial expression, shout and whisper from this actress gives credence to Ruth’s internal pain. At times, she doesn’t have to utter a word for us to understand that her life is not quite what it used to be – and her dreams of a better life are funneled through those of her husband and mother-in-law.
Everyman is the perfect place to host yet another run of Hansberry’s groundbreaking play. Quaint and visceral, the theatre boasts a space that resembles a trusted room in one’s home. It feels as if the characters are just stopping by for a visit to share a bit of history and ambitions with the audience. The set is exquisite for such an intimate theatre. Each table, chair, sofa, and wall shelf is filled with details of the Younger family. The coffee table is littered with LIFE magazines, a bible, and Beneatha’s (Fatima Quander) college textbooks. Even the sun beams through a bedroom window and clothes hang from a makeshift clothesline just outside the kitchen window. The picture of Big Walter leaning against a weathered, but strong wall shelf is perhaps the most meaningful piece of scenery. His presence is felt in nearly every crevice and corner of the Younger apartment. Not one family member can stroll through the space without carrying a piece of Big Walter with them, especially Mama. LeVonne Lindsay’s costumes fit right in with the 50s time frame, right down to the hat, purse and knickers. Lighting Designer Jay Herzog’s work is perfection.
The play’s multi-layered issues: realizing the American Dream, navigating racism and poverty, questioning one’s identity within a dominant culture and generational clashes is why Hansberry’s work is still so very relevant today. I could relate to most of the material, and I’m sure the audience could too. Their craned necks and murmurs of agreement with what the characters were saying are proof.
As the lights go up after a heart wrenching scene, one audience member whispers “I’m over here crying myself. This is powerful.” Everyman Theatre’s production is powerful and engrossing, mesmerizing, and intriguing. Hansberry would be so proud. Other productions of A Raisin in the Sun may pop up soon, but I can certainly guarantee you that they won’t be as spellbinding as this A Raisin in the Sun at Everyman Theatre. Don’t miss it!
Running time: Two hours with two ten minute intermissions.