A RAISIN IN THE SUNWritten by Lorraine Hansberry
Directed by Natalie King
Assistant Director – Liz Mikel
Production Stage Manager – Jasmin Shands*
Assistant Stage Manager – Ruby Pullum
Set Design – Kennedy Styron
Lightening & Projection Design – Jessica Drayton
Costume Design – Ryan Matthieu Smith
Sound Design – Marco Salinas
Properties Design – Hillary Collazo Abbott
Covid Compliance Officers – Ruby Pullman & Elizabeth Kensek
Djoré Nance* - Walter Lee Younger
vickie washington* - Lena (Mama) Younger
Nikka M. – Ruth Younger
Marlena Elliott – Beneatha Younger
Carlos Brumfield – Joseph Asagai
J.R. Bradford – George Murchison
Sean Massey – Bobo
Stan Graner – Karl Lindner
Kaiden Macklin Bowens – Travis Younger (reviewed)
Mitchell Walker – Travis Younger
* Actors’ Equity Association
Reviewed Performance: 9/3/2021
Reviewed by Ann Saucer, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
The WaterTower Theatre’s production opens with a montage of short audio clips of key figures in the American Civil Rights struggle, starting with Kamala Harris and working back in time. These quotes illustrate the importance of the issues that Hansberry’s play brought to Broadway decades ago. The systemic injustices facing the Youngers, a working class African American family, are both shocking and familiar. In 1968, nine years after A Raisin in the Sun’s premiere, Congress passed the Fair Housing Act, outlawing the refusal to sell or rent a dwelling to any person because of race. Experiencing this riveting, at times gut-wrenching play, marvelously brought to life by a superb cast, I cannot help but to believe that the political heroes who brought us Civil Rights legislation enjoyed theatrical tailwinds.
The set and multitudinous props work gloriously with the play’s text to recreate the intricacies of an overcrowded and roach-infested Chicago Southside apartment. From the beginning, the Younger family members are jockeying with unseen neighbors to share the building’s bathroom, which the family exits the apartment to reach, toothbrush and clothes in hand. The family’s cramped kitchen is recreated in meticulous detail, including jelly in canned jars and period tableware. We are pulled into the family’s morning routine as Ruth fetches the morning’s milk bottle and makes breakfast for her drowsy son and husband, whom she has pestered out of bed.
This play presents a family at a crossroads, beginning with a much-anticipated insurance check and ending with the resolution of where that money landed. It is an intense and gritty exploration of family dynamics.
Nikka M.’s overwhelmingly sympathetic embodiment of Ruth Younger, a loving yet troubled wife and mother, engages the audience from the start as she draws us into the family’s morning routine. The apartment’s unpleasantness is important to the later story arc. Nikka M. shows us that Ruth wants more than anything for her husband to reciprocate her love for him. It is a superb and nuanced performance. The character Ruth is not looking for attention, but Nikka M. commands it when necessary for the play to work.
As Ruth’s husband Walter Lee Younger, Djoré Nance fills the stage with his character’s troubled charisma and dangerously restless energy. Even in his drowsy (maybe also hungover) state, Walter Lee teases his wife: “You look young again. (beat) Just for a second. Now it’s gone.” As Ruth labors in her husband’s best interests, he reciprocates with quotidian sexism, “ya’ll evil people at eight o’clock in the morning.” As a character Walter Lee is not easy to like (possibly more so to contemporary audiences), but Nance does yeoman’s work showing us what his wife and mother see in Walter. To call Walter Lee Younger frustrated by his circumstance is an understatement. He sees the world as run by white men with a plush life making million-dollar deals over lunch, with no bigger problems than their secretaries’ mistakes. He is correct that life is unfair to him, but whether he has a constructive solution remains to be seen. The character runs the gamut from groggy, grouchy, petulant, scheming, furious, jubilant, drunk, horny, destroyed, and jumping on the furniture, and Nance delivers a stellar performance at every turn.
Walter Lee does not understand his wife or his mother. He has a vision of the two women sitting down for coffee, stirring their spoons as the seeds of life-changing decisions are planted. In truth, these two women are too busy to sit down—they are never out of ironing or other chores, when they aren’t working in white women’s kitchens. They speak plainly to each other, and in the complicated web of family dynamics, Mama and her daughter-in-law Ruth, while not biologically related, are the most alike. Their polestars are their devotion to the men in their lives.
vickie washington’s Lena Younger, the family matriarch, has perhaps the most challenging dialogue, as her character quite dramatically changes her mind on key issues. washington delivers a poignant, superb performance, convincing where lesser actresses would come up short. “Mama” is both down-to-earth in her humble housecoat and then imperial when wielding insurance money in a majestic 1950’s dress. When we are set to believe she will embarrass her daughter, Mama exceeds expectations with a casually sophisticated reference to the evils of colonialism. washington’s genius here is in making this conflicted character work. She can deliver hilarious zingers, as when referring to one of her daughter’s suitors as “that’s a pretty thing.” But mostly she is crushed under the weight of her son’s troubles. She knows better, but will her heart overrule her better judgment?
At times, Mama explains her thinking in religious terms: whether people drink is not her business, “but if I sells it to them it is, and I don’t want to have that on my ledger this late in life.” Her children confuse her. She raised them right. She and her late husband endured so much effort to get them to Church on Sundays. But she cannot understand them.
Mama seems to apply different standards to her son than to her daughter. Her twenty year-old daughter gets an open-handed slap in the mouth for disrespecting God, which as Ruth explains: act like a child and you are treated like one. But the older Walter Lee is as bratty as they come, and Mama’s resistance to his misbehavior only goes so far.
Marlena Elliott has the beauty to play the beguiling daughter, Beneatha. Two things happen to Beneatha throughout the play. First, she appears in a variety of outfits and hairstyles, looking more glamourous and gorgeous at every turn, as befitting the devotion of her esteemed suitors. Beneatha complains to her mother and sister-in-law that the rich suitor, George Murchison (well played as both quick-witted and smug by J.R. Bradford), is shallow. The response is: “what do you mean shallow? He’s rich.” The “pretty” suitor is Nigerian born Joseph Asagai, played with sweet intensity by Carlos Brumfield.
The second thing that happens to Beneatha is a stream of misogyny. Her brother is openly hostile that their mother plans to pay for Beneatha to attend medical school. He snipes that, “be a nurse like other women or get married and shut up.” Her mother wants her to have that tuition money, but just how much she will stick to that resolve is questionable. Her suitors’ casual sexism also annoys.
Sean Massey is phenomenal as Bobo, whose nervous appearance quickly escalates to a calamitous revelation. Massey breaks down in tears, and his convincing grief is extremely useful for the audience’s understanding of what happened in a pivotal offstage plot point.
Stage veteran Stan Graner is also fantastic as Karl Lindner, whose appearance at the Younger household is about as awkward as it gets. Lindner’s double speak is jaw-dropping, but Graner sells every line as what this white guy actually believes—including whoppers such as he understands what it means to be an outsider. The expressions on the Younger family’s faces speak volumes, and Elliott’s disdain is spot on perfect.
The ten-year old Travis is double cast, and I got to enjoy Kaiden Macklin Bowens’ performance. He is perfectly adorable, even when stomping around.
As much as meticulous attention was paid to the props (I can only imagine the hunt for a 1950’s hat box), the costumes are delightful, also transporting the audience to a different time. The sound system effectively surrounds the audience with music when vinyl records are played. The intricate light design facilitates the moody, sometimes claustrophobic feel of the apartment.
This production has a short run, so do not miss it. I cannot do justice to how phenomenal this cast is. See this play for the riveting dramatic performances of a spot-on stellar cast.
Dates September 1 – September 12, 2021
Terry Martin Main Stage
Address 15650 Addison Road, Addison, Texas 75001
For information and Tickets go to www.WaterTowerTheatre.org or call 972.450.6232.