A Raisin in the Sun
Everyman’s shattering production of an American classic
Published: September 14, 2011
A Raisin in the Sun
By Lorraine Hansberry
At Everyman Theatre through Oct. 9
Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin the Sun is such a well-crafted play that it is difficult to do it injustice. Written in 1959, when Hansberry was just 29 years old—she died of pancreatic cancer at 34—it is an intricately composed portrait of an African-American family on Chicago’s South Side, dreaming of a better life. The dialogue is, by turns, piercingly honest and laugh-out-loud funny, and the relationship dynamics so true to life as to make the viewer cringe. As Everyman Theatre artistic director Vincent Lancisi put it to an opening-night audience, “A Raisin in the Sun isn’t a classic African-American play. It’s a classic American play.”
Everyman’s current production is more than a faithful rendition of Raisin, however. It is a shattering one. Chockablock with magnetic performances, it’s exquisitely staged, down to the period set—see potholders, fly swatter—and the crackly recording of “Darn That Dream” that precedes the play’s beginning. It is a fully realized, searing portrayal of the intergenerational struggles within a family. Lizan Mitchell—last seen at Everyman in 2008’s Gem of the Ocean—is Lena Younger, aka Mama, the matriarch of the family. While there is no shortage of strong performances in this production, Mama is a maelstrom. At moments of crisis—as when her son Walter Lee (KenYatta Rogers) decides to accept a payoff from a white homeowners association in exchange for not moving into the neighborhood—she takes on the look one might assume in the face of an oncoming bus. Her hands flutter, she takes small tottering steps. And then speaks: “Death's done come in this house. Done come walking in my house on the lips of my children.” Mitchell is captivating throughout, her surprisingly sonorous voice seemingly emerging from a reserve of strength deep within her tiny frame.
The action in the play centers around a $10,000 check Mama receives from her deceased husband’s life insurance. She wants to buy a home for her family but her son wants to use the money to open his own business. Walter’s sister Beneatha (Fatima Quander) wants some of it for medical school. Meanwhile Walter’s wife Ruth (Everyman company member Dawn Ursula) is pregnant and considering an abortion. Ruth is Mama’s ally and her foil: Emotions move imperceptibly beneath the surface in Ruth, and when she expresses anything strongly—pain, joy—it sends a ripple through her family, and the audience. Ruth and Walter’s dynamic is one of the central tensions in the production, and each time they come together or pull apart, you buy it. Those classic lines—“How we gets to the place where we scared to talk softness to each other?” Walter asks—resonate all the more for the pregnant pauses in which the pair is not afraid to linger.
Quander does a good turn as Beneatha, but her performance is perhaps the least compelling of the main characters. This is likely due to Beneatha’s own youth and lack of experience. And Quander succeeds in embodying both the soaring hope and petulance of a young woman who does not quite recognize the struggles of her forebears, a character with more passion than complexity.
While the women in Raisin are the main source of the family’s resilience, it is Walter Lee who is most transformed by the end. Rogers does a terrific job embodying this change, from a man who feels so trapped that he has become fairly despicable to one who has, in the words of Mama, “come into his manhood.” Through the first act and most of the second, bitterness seems to seep from Rogers’ pores, though sometimes in funny ways. He oscillates between quiet, menacing tension and cynical joking, including parodying the subservient black man he feels he is forced to be. In the third act, having lost all the money and his hope with it, he goes so far as to grovel on the floor, mimicking how he plans to play his part with the white homeowners association in exchange for payment. It is a crushing scene, and it’s supremely cathartic when his pride does not allow him to go through with it. As the veins on his neck stand out, his body nearly trembling with restrained anger, he tells the association representative about that pride, his family looking on. The transformation is sudden, believable, and complete.
If you only see one production this season—and the season has only just begun—make it this one.
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