note: entire contents copyright 2013 by Sheila Barth
When Lorraine Hansberry was 10 years old, her father bought a house in an all-white Chicago neighborhood in 1938, setting off a legal brouhaha that went all the way to the US Supreme Court two years later. The Hansberrys’ “new” neighbors tried to have the family removed, citing their restrictive agreement to keep African-Americans out. Although her father won the court’s ruling, the legality of all-white restrictive covenants in our land of the free remained ambiguous.
Hansberry never forgot it. Based on that experience and literary license, she wrote “A Raisin in the Sun,” winning Tony Award nominations and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award in 1959. Besides breaking through societal barriers with her play about racism and an African American family’s suppressed dreams, Hansberry broke several others. She was the first African-American, youngest playwright and one of the few female writers to win that coveted award.
She also awakened Americans to the ugly side of the street, as the civil rights movement was rumbling, gaining steam, and ready to erupt. Unfortunately, her play’s relevance endures. Ghetto neighborhoods and racism still exist, but thankfully, it’s a new world, abounding with educational, political, and career opportunities.
Liesl Tommy directs Huntington Theatre Company’s outstanding production of “A Raisin in the Sun,” set between World War II and 1959, adding her signature magic touches. Tommy, who was born in apartheid Capetown, South Africa, moved to Newton, Mass. at 15 years old, daughter of a former Boston city planner, who worked with low-income housing, and witnessed tight living quarters firsthand.
Previously, she deftly directed award-nominated productions of “Ruined” and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” at Huntington, and has reunited with some outstanding cast and crew members for this edgy, smashing production. Again, she evokes command performances from this superlative cast.
Kimberly Scott as Lena Younger, widowed matriarch with two dreams - to own her own house, and send her daughter Beneatha to medical school - is superb. She is strong, wise, God-fearing and loving, as she tries to hold her family together, while fulfilling their and her dreams. As the family eagerly awaits a $10,000 life insurance check on Lena’s deceased husband, Walter, they each have hope on what that money can do for them.
LeRoy McClain magnificently portrays Lena’s son, Walter Lee Younger, with raw emotions. The married father with one son feels servile, beaten down at his job as a chauffeur, and desperately dreams of starting his own business by investing with friends to buy a liquor store. “I’m a man,” he roars.“Nobody in this house is ever going to understand me.” He seethes, a simmering volcano about to erupt.
He insults Beneatha’s shallow, wealthy, preppy, college boyfriend, George Murchison, (Corey Allen), saying he’s trying to look like a white person, but adds he wants to talk to George’s father. He has some big ideas to share. Raging with frustration and feelings of inadequacy, Walter sinks deeper into despondency and self-pity. He goes on a drinking binge, refusing to show up for work.
Lap Chi Chu’s provocative lighting, especially on designer Clint Ramos’ clever, revolving set, is pivotal, during explosive, ironic and touching scenes - which abound here. There‘s another reason for Chu’s luminescent spotlight throughout the play, which adds an eerie, spiritual dimension to this production.
Bathed in soft spotlight during a tender, poignant scene, Walter tells his 10-year-old son, Travis, (talented third-grader Cory Janvier), his dreams for himself and the boy’s future. When Travis says he hopes to be a bus driver when he grows up, Walter is crushed by the boy’s low expectations. Cory adds a bright spot, with his impish grin, easygoing manner, love and respect for his grandmother. He alternates his role with Zaire White.
Ashley Everage sets a wonderful balance as Walter’s patient, loving, hard-working wife, Ruth; and Keona Welch as Walter’s younger sister, Beneatha, is sassy, fun, and independent, with her high hopes of attending medical school and becoming a doctor. She also asserts her newfound African American roots, infatuated with Joseph Asagai, (Jason Bowen), her patient, wise, “intellectual” boyfriend from Nigeria, who wants Beneatha to come to Africa with him.
Will McGarrahan is sardonic as the Youngers‘ racist, potentially new neighbor, Karl Lindner. He represents the neighborhood association that’s looking to bar and buy out the Youngers‘ agreement to buy a house in their all-white, Clybourne Park neighborhood. Although the versatile McGarrahan portrays the villain here, his facial expressions and eye-rolling are cartoonish as he skirts this fantastic, revolving multi-sided, wood-slatted structure, searching for the Youngers’ shabby Chicago South Side apartment. Inside, McGarrahan’s discomfiture during his proposal to buy out the Youngers, then threatening them when they refuse, is priceless.
At Huntington, the Youngers’ individual struggles and hope resonate with renewed poignancy and power, a dramatic, enlightening coup.
Be sure to also see SpeakEasy Stage Company’s sterling production of Bruce Norris’ multi-award-winning play, “Clybourne Park,” set immediately before “A Raisin in the Sun” in the first act, then 50 years later. “Clybourne Park” is at the Boston Center for the Arts‘ Roberts Studio Theatre through March 30.
BOX INFO: Two-act play, written by Lorraine Hansberry, appearing through April 7, at Boston University Theatre Avenue of the Arts, 264 Huntington Ave., Boston. Performances are Tuesday-Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday, Saturday, at 8 p.m.; select Sundays at 7 p.m.; matinees, select Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. Check for related events. Check for post-show related events. Tickets start at $25; 35 years old and younger, $25; students, military with valid ID, $15. Senior discount, $5 off; subscribers, BU community, $10 off. Visit huntingtontheatre.org or call 617-266-0800 or visit the Box Office.