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‘A Raisin in the Sun’ Both a Classic and a Historical Snapshot

REVIEW: SCR’s new production of the 1959 drama underscores the strength of Lorraine Hansberry’s concepts – and of her writing.


From left, Ashembaga (Ashe) Jaafaru, Tiffany Yvonne Cox and C.J. Lindsey in South Coast Repertory's 2023 production of "A Raisin in the Sun." Photo courtesy of South Coast Repertory/Robert Huskey
 

While the multifaceted Lorraine Hansberry’s talents extended to literary writing, journalism, activism, stage direction and a screenplay, there’s no question her best-known work is “A Raisin in the Sun.”

The 1959 play put the then 27-year-old Hansberry on the map. She was the first Black woman to write a play that went to Broadway and the youngest playwright, first Black playwright, and only the fifth woman to capture the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play.


Productions of this landmark have much to live up to – so it’s good to report that South Coast Repertory’s new staging, directed by Khanisha Foster, is one that would do its creator proud. And, although it might surprise some and perhaps might be disputed by others, this is SCR’s first production of the now-classic play – surprising in that the company was born and began to spread its wings just as “Raisin” was starting to pick up steam.


In encapsulating some of her and her family’s own experiences struggling to survive in Chicago in the mid-20th century, Hansberry wrote what is essentially a Black kitchen-sink drama (laced, however, with good-natured humor).

But “A Raisin in the Sun” also captures a time and place in American history when the barrier of racial segregation had yet to be smashed. The Civil Rights Movement was in its infancy – and many bloody battles still lay ahead.

Anyone reviving “Raisin” must be mindful of its context even while bringing to life the various familial conflicts generated by Hansberry.

SCR walks that knife’s edge, delivering both a powerful, often moving drama of a family struggling to survive economic hardship and a scorching recrimination of a system in which it’s taken for granted that Blacks and whites will ignore one another – even if that means Blacks will be shut out from partaking of the wealth, success and privilege they see all around them.

Hansberry conceived of “A Raisin in the Sun” as a way to bring such issues to the fore without belaboring them. The play is first and foremost a close-up look at a 1950s Black-American family over a crucial, two-day period of their lives when fate first drops a fortune into their laps, then yanks it away.

Foster and her well-chosen cast approach their material honestly. Nothing is forced, yet the script is not underplayed. They deliver a classic, and in doing so, also provide a window onto a time when glaring disparities in social justice were an accepted way of life.

Veralyn Jones’ Mama Lena Younger is impatient with her children, Walter Lee and Beneatha, and long indulgent of their often errant ways. She’d love to be the family’s rock, but Hansberry deftly makes her a fallible head of household. Jones shows Lena’s remorse over dismissing Walter’s dreams to own a liquor store “the same as everyone else.”


Veralyn Jones as Mama Lena Younger in South Coast Repertory's 2023 production of "A Raisin in the Sun." Photo courtesy of South Coast Repertory/Robert Huskey
 

C.J. Lindsey’s Walter Lee gripes with self-pity and utter resignation, boasting he’s “a giant surrounded by ants.” Walter has given up on life, telling 10-year-old son Travis (Nathan Broxton) about his plans to use the money “that’s gonna change all our lives."

Tiffany Yvonne Cox’s Ruth is a born romantic – a loving soul who desires only her husband Walter’s eternal devotion. She bursts with love for Walter and their son Travis. While the wall that has gone up between her and Walter frustrates her and has been years in the making, the top of Act Two sees some measure of reconnection between them.

Ashembaga (Ashe) Jaafaru shows us Beneatha’s serious, earnest commitment to progressive causes, but also the comedic sides of her personality. The latter comes at the top of Act Two, as Benny dances to recorded tribal Yoruban music, a gift from Asagai. Tall, slender Junior Nyong’o’s Asagai is an elegant, well-spoken Nigerian who’s clearly enamored of Benny.

Travis is the young vessel used by dad Walter, mom Ruth and grandma Lena in which to pour their hopes and dreams, and Broxton shows us the boy’s childlike inability to fathom the emotional turmoil that surrounds him.


Tristan Turner conveys the polished sophistication of Beneatha’s classmate and platonic date, George Murchison. While he’s well educated about the Western African heritage he has in common with the Youngers, Turner shows us George’s snobbish scorn of it.


C.J. Lindsey as Walter Younger, left, and Tristan Turner as George Murchison in South Coast Repertory's 2023 production of "A Raisin in the Sun." Photo courtesy of South Coast Repertory/Robert Huskey
 

That leaves Walter to denigrate all that George represents – in effect, dissing his own heritage. Turner gets the choicely comedic viewpoint that pursuit of an education and a degree “has nothing to do with thought.”


If each of the Youngers’ plans for Lena’s late husband’s life insurance payout dominate “Raisin,” a big chunk of the play focuses on Walter and Ruth’s crumbling marriage – Ruth nearing desperation as Walter drifts. Not only are the Youngers expecting $10,000, but Ruth is expecting another child – news that elicits varying reactions from Walter, Lena and Beneatha.

Lena’s down payment on a new house in the exclusive white enclave Clybourne Park is, in reality, a wager on the Youngers she can’t afford to lose. The harsh realities of ’50s U.S. cause the family’s internal conflicts to collide – and for the fate of the family’s economic windfall to be determined.

That fate is tied to the money that promises to bring some freedom and mobility. Lena’s ceding the fortune to Walter, making him head of the family, is a huge plot point. His plans will reveal his identity. Lena prays he’ll do right by the family – and all the Youngers who came before him.

Sent on behalf of the exclusive white neighborhood, Mr. Lindner (David Nevell) would love to send the Youngers packing, their pockets bulging with a refund and some reparations.

Hansberry, and Mama Lena, leave the family’s most monumental decision to Walter. Whatever he decides will affect the future course of the Younger family.

Lindner, the story’s only white character, implores the family to not occupy their new home. Walter, Ruth and Mama Lena are at first confused by the welcoming committee, but Ruth and Beneatha quickly realize what’s being perpetrated upon them – and that, as Beneatha says, “race prejudice has everything to do with it.”

Hansberry brilliantly uses this development to create a denouement that more than lives up to the reputation “A Raisin in the Sun” has earned. It also gives Walter a chance to show his true colors.

Bobo (Erròn Jay) and Walter have been conned by Willie, the slick friend who promised to help Walter get a short-cut to a liquor license. The stricken Bobo pays Walter a late-night visit to deliver news that will shatter the Youngers for having lost their newly found good fortune. Jay aptly portrays Bobo as a put-upon victim of circumstance.


From left, C.J. Lindsey, Nathan Broxton, Veralyn Jones, Ashembaga (Ashe) Jaafaru and Tiffany Yvonne Cox in South Coast Repertory's 2023 production of "A Raisin in the Sun." Photo courtesy of South Coast Repertory/Robert Huskey
 

With his bitterness increased by Willie’s betrayal, Walter asserts that “there are two kinds of people in this world: Those who take and those who get taken.” The Youngers have always been the latter, and by accepting the association’s refund, Walter is within minutes of becoming one who takes.

A crushing defeat in terms of unimaginable material loss of the Youngers’ financial life raft, this moment goes right up to the edge of melodrama without crossing it. We do feel the family’s pain and, for Lena, a lifetime of toil, with little to show for it – until now. The pain of the Younger family’s lost windfall is etched on Jones’ face.

The new circumstances give Walter a chance to show his true core. Will he swallow his pride and take what amounts to a bribe, or will he assert his integrity and reject the counter-offer?

Josafath Reynoso’s scenic design depicts the Youngers’ shopworn tenement apartment home as comfortable and lived-in, albeit frayed around the edges. Wendell C. Carmichael opts for a universal costume design that wisely avoids any obvious stereotypical period attire.

In 1961, Hansberry adapted her hit play for the big screen in a film version starring the original Broadway cast. She died less than four years later. “A Raisin in the Sun,” her signature stageplay, will live forever and continues to be must-see theater – facts for which, undisputedly, those in the business of theater, and their patrons, must be grateful.

'A Raisin in the Sun'

Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes (includes intermission)


Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa When: Through Nov. 12 Cost: $29 to $105 Contact: 714-708-5500, scr.org






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