A RAISIN IN THE SUNBy Lorraine Hansberry
Director: Megan Haratine
Stage Manager: Jasmine Shands
Lighting and Set Designer: Bryan Stevenson
Sound Designer: Bill Eickenloff
Costume Designer: Hope Cox
Properties Designer: Robin Dotson
Scenic Artist: Angie Glover
Ruth Younger: Shaundra Norwood
Walter Lee Younger: Bryan Pitts
Travis Younger: King Packard
Beneatha Younger: Lauren Harrison
Lena Younger: Linda Jordan
Joseph Asagai: Nate Davis
George Murchison: Durant Searcy
Karl Lindner: William Kledas
Bobo: Gen Donnell
Reviewed Performance: 2/15/2020
Reviewed by Charlie Bowles, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Plays set in the past often leave us few clues to the references the story tells. Modern audiences can’t see old stories without applying modern thinking, so we don’t get the same impact a story created when it was written. But some stories are timeless and, while references may not be fresh, themes can be reapplied. And, in some cases, it seems the earlier times come full circle to make the play even more important.
Such is the case of a Raisin in the Sun, which opened at Theatre Arlington this week. Written by Lorraine Hansberry in 1959, it tells of an African American family in South Chicago struggling to reach an American dream, even just to take a small step out of poverty. In the 1950s open racism was universally common, though a few folks had raised their place in society. Slavery had morphed into cultural racism where segregation was the expected norm. The new upper class was tolerated if it stayed in its place. Resistance to this was still considered a barrier and the Civil Rights Movement was just beginning. Open rebellion of the 60’s had not started, but it was simmering. By the mid-60s, it would become the central issue in American society. Each member of this family has a different relationship with this struggle, so the story in this play is how they work through their personal obstacles to discover that family is stronger than the fight.
Megan Haratine directed this play with a sense of building that 1950’s environment. She worked with a vision of that small, poor, Southside apartment Hansberry described as a setting to show how this family lived. Crowded. Backward. Not quite derelict, but rampant with roaches. Bryan Stevenson, Set Designer, Robin Dotson, Props Designer, and Angie Glover, Scenic Artist, implemented Haratine’s vision with a 2-bedroom apartment and a living-kitchen area taking up most of the stage. With lots of household props and old furniture, it looked lived-in, like people made the best of what they had. Stevenson added upstage walls with gauze scrims, so backlighting revealed bedrooms, an entryway, a stairway, a window to the outside. Action in back rooms was mostly silent stage business, as all the main action occurred in the living area.
Bill Eickenloff’s sound background added minor effects, but really there were some musical interludes and acting moments which spoke of the times and the story. I loved walking into a pre-show with Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman, Ella Fitzgerald, and even Buddy Guy playing. This set a real tone for the story.
Hope Cox found a mix of 50s costume pieces, all old, oversized, but comfortable. Though living in poverty, these were not destitute people. They wore comfortable, old clothes, but seemed proud and took care of them. There were visitors who brought their own form of clothing expressions. No one talked of the bad clothes. It was all they had to wear.
Haratine’s cast was strong. Four characters had serious arcs to experience, their own private hells to endure, and dreams of what would lift them out to a better tomorrow. Each had to endure extreme highs and lowest of emotional lows as events promised and then stole their personal dreams. Supporting characters were Shakespearean in Lorraine Hansberry’s hands. Each had a crucial part in expressing some part of the theme. Each was a part in the social fabric of the 50’s and took away or contributed to the dreams of main characters.
Walter Lee and Ruth Younger are the main breadwinners in this household, having found jobs servicing rich folks as chauffer or housekeeper. Bryan Pitts gave Walter a strong sense of duty to support the family with ever-larger schemes to become part of the elite, like the men he drove. While Walter was prone to drink and act out his dream of making it big, Pitts had to play a wide range of emotional outbursts with periodic moments of delightful tenderness. He rode the rollercoaster of Walter’s life as the dream came tantalizingly close before it was snatched away by his own stupidity. We saw a man who was at one moment elated and the next brought to his knees. We saw a man get deeply drunk and an actor who made this look natural. In the end, Walter had to decide what was most important for his family and choose whether he’d be destructive or supportive.
Ruth, created by Shaundra Norwood, has a more personal struggle. Her relationship with Walter is as dead as it can be while she harbors a secret that must have a resolution or make her take a drastic step against her family. Norwood played the long-suffering wife who does housework, gives into her husband, looks after the household, and provides a quiet stability to everyone. But underneath there’s worsening fear. Ruth’s emotional arc is inside. We could see it. Other characters could not. And yet Norwood played though Walter’s tender moments as a loving wife and his horrible moments in growing despair and dealt with her own challenge alone.
Mama, or Lena Younger, is the matriarch. As Lena, Linda Jordan was everyone’s idea of a grandmother. It’s Ruth’s home. It’s her windfall that gets everyone hopeful. It’s her rules and motherly, Christian view that sets the tone for the house. Lena’s husband is gone, but she has two kids, Walter and Beneatha, and a grandson to shepherd through hard times. Ever hopeful for better times, Lena is also content to let things lie. She’s lived there happily a long time, but now experiences heartache during the worst of times and perseverance as her family is falling apart. Jordan showed this quiet, internal struggle while outwardly showing Ruth’s moral resolve. A happy family for her is the only dream.
Beneatha is Walter’s young sister, a young college-age woman. She’s living in a modern world with dreams of becoming someone important. Lauren Harrison imbued Beneatha with the strength of youth, questioning old beliefs, being swayed by peers. Her dream is helping others, but school is expensive and graduate school is out-of-reach. Harrison fights furiously as Ruth gets into regular arguments with her brother, Walter, and even Ruth. Decisions about whether to date the rich George or the Nigerian Joseph, each with very different life-views, sway her choices about her future. Harrison played indecision without forcing it, allowing it to ebb and flow, though it opened opportunity for youthful emotional swings as Beneatha expresses the struggle of youth against elders.
Travis Younger, played by King Packard, is the young son of Walter and Ruth. He doesn’t have an arc, but his place in the family sets the goal for all. He is innocence in this story. Everyone wants his life to be easier. They want his world to be better. He’s Walter’s boy, the legacy of Walter’s success and failure, and so very important to how Walter chooses his path. Joseph Asagai is a Nigerian foreign student who loves Beneatha. Nate Davis gave this character a wisdom of life no one else has. Asagai voices his Yoruba culture to help Beneatha see a long vision of a future where her American culture is replaced by something bigger. He loves her, but sees her for who she is, not what he wants her to be. George Murchison, played by Durant Searcy, represents the Americanized version of the upper black culture. Wealthy in his own right, he expects Beneatha to accept his high-brow culture, which was itself a form of racism. Searcy allowed this character to express his class-conscious bigoted worldview so we could see there is also economic racism within the separate cultures. They can be just as damaging.
Two final characters played important plot roles. Karl Lindner, played by William Kledas, is the face of American racism in the 50’s. He needed to enforce exclusion from “white” establishments. This was poverty by rejection. Karl delivers an ultimatum about moving an all-white neighborhood, but his method was bribery and an attempt to cajole the family to live somewhere else. Kledas had to express racial bias with a commitment to play the role honestly. He committed fully and we got the view of this racism without judgement. And finally, Bobo, played by Gen Donnell, is Walter’s friend who helps form the idea of using the family’s windfall to buy into a get-rich scheme, and then delivers the news about that to the family. Donnell’s delivery provided an impact that could drive the family into a destructive spiral. We saw a man who also lost all he had in this scheme and felt the loss they would feel.
It doesn’t seem there could be humor in a story like this. But with pacing built by Director Haratine and a cast committed to allow humor to come out of their characters’ situations, there were a lot of laughs. The audience saw bad events unfold and heard natural reactions and couldn’t help but laugh. That’s how most of us deal with bad news and it’s an important way to get through a tragic story.
A Raisin in the Sun is not a how-to for people struggling with failing dreams, but rather a Just Do It that reinforces that there’s nothing fair in life and dreams are not automatic. But it also poses the idea that we must fight for what we believe. The important lesson: Being connected, especially to family, makes the struggle easier to endure. Fight for family first. Other things may come later, but at least we have family to share it with.
Join the family at Theatre Arlington for this great trip back to the 50s, through March 8.
305 W. Main St.
Arlington, TX 76010
Plays through March 8
Thursday - Saturday at 7:30 pm; Sunday at 2:00 pm.
Tickets: $26.00 (includes $2 online ticket processing fee)
Discounts available for seniors, students & groups!
For information and tickets, visit www.theatrearlington.org or call (817) 275-7661.
*Appropriate for ages 13 and up*