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Phylicia Rashad in A Raisin in the Sun
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
The first thing to say about Kenny Leon's exhilarating revival of A Raisin in the Sun is: Book tickets immediately and then read this account of the production's overflowing marvels.

Okay, now that you're back, don't expect to be told that this is a perfect realization of Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 drama about the noisy clash of deferred dreams in Lena Younger's cramped Southside Chicago apartment, where the matriarchal cleaning lady (Phylicia Rashad) and her brood are trying to make the most of limited circumstances and long-occupied surroundings. That brood consists of Lena's daughter Beneatha (Sanaa Lathan), who hopes to become a doctor, and son Walter Lee (Sean Combs), a chauffeur, plus Walter Lee's cleaning lady wife Ruth (Audra MacDonald) and their schoolboy son Travis (Alexander Mitchell). Incidentally, the above "deferred dreams" phrase isn't mine; it's Langston Hughes's poetical comment about such dreams possibly drying up like a raisin in the sun. This is exactly the allusion that Hansberry needed to succinctly signal her profound concern with the conflicts inherent in what African-American communities frequently term, or used to term, "striving."

No, this Raisin in the Sun -- though helmed with precise second-to-second care by Leon -- isn't flawless. There are moments, particularly at the relaxed beginning of the second act, that feel cute in a vaguely sitcom-like way. As for the casting of Sean Combs in the role of the nervous, angry Walter Lee Younger: The actor is strong but hasn't as yet delved as deeply as he might into the character's pain and rage. In time, he could be remarkable in the part. Certainly, the wiry, compact Combs looks right as a confused man who's trying to assert himself with the help of questionable friends. (Early in the play, the audience responds to the neophyte stage actor as if they're scoping P. Diddy; that's to say, reactions to what he's doing seem somewhat out of proportion. Insofar as reports that Combs was coached by Hollywood guru Susan Batson are concerned, there's nothing wrong with a practice that's much more common than some theater reporters apparently know.)

If this production isn't 100% perfect, however, it's so close to perfection that the difference makes no never mind. Rashad, McDonald, and Lathan give performances of such magnitude that wherever playwright Hansberry is -- having died at 34, five years after this play premiered -- she has to be beaming as intensely as the rays of the sun that lighting designer Brian MacDevitt eventually aims through the window where Lena sets the scrawny plant symbolizing her hopes for family growth. A Raisin in the Sun was, if not the first, then a very early report on the strength that black women regularly exhibit while the men they love scramble to locate vitality drained by suppressing social conditions. The play, which won the Drama Critics Circle award but not the Pulitzer or the Tony, is a seared valentine to these women. And the leading ladies of this production embody them in every possible dimension as they live -- that's right, live -- on Thomas Lynch's set with its etched windows in the sliding parlor doors and other details of shabby gentility.

Before going into specifics about the production's superlative acting, which isn't confined to the women, it's necessary to congratulate Hansberry on a play that was composed during a period when kitchen sink drama was a ubiquitous genre of the American theater. A kitchen sink is indeed dominant upstage here, not too far away from the aforementioned plant. That's where the fatigued Ruth heads when she first enters on a gray morning to rouse Travis, who's sleeping on a nearby couch because there's no bedroom for him. What Hansberry sends reeling around the apartment is a brilliant drama wherein she makes the point that a mother's expectations may prove irreconcilable with her son's aspirations.

Audra McDonald and Sean Combs in
A Raisin in the Sun
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Hansberry centers the play's primary conflict on the disposition of a $10,000 life-insurance check that Lena receives several months after her husband's death. Not sure how to distribute the thrilling sum, she's importuned by Walter Lee to give him enough to invest in a liquor store business. Lena's dilemma is whether to put the cash towards Beneatha's medical education or use it to buy a house for the family now that they truly need more breathing space, what with Ruth pregnant and contemplating an abortion. Meanwhile, Beneatha is busy juggling two suitors, the complacent college boy George Murchison (Frank Harts) and Joseph Asagai (Teagle F. Bougere), a Nigerian fellow with an unshakeable belief in his own prospects. Hot air threatens to stifle the apartment dwellers when Lena puts a down payment on a house in a white neighborhood and a supposed welcome-wagoner named Karl Lindner (David Aaron Baker) arrives with anything but welcome in his obsequious manner. The atmosphere becomes even more heated when Lena entrusts the remainder of her husband's legacy to Walter Lee and he mishandles it in his confusion about what constitutes male pride.

So to the cast, toting their weary load in Paul Tazewell costumes that cunningly recall an era when every self-respecting African-American woman left the house with a hat on. ("Somebody get me my hat," Lena demands when she sets out to purchase that meager wedge of real estate.) To see the etched worry on the faces of Rashad and MacDonald from the instant they hit the stage is to learn the history of both these characters -- and they have Lena and Ruth in their bodies as well. Esteemed actresses, they almost seem to have been preparing for these indelible roles throughout their careers. (They join Viola Davis of Intimate Apparel and Tonya Pinkins of Caroline, or Change in a New York theater season that's suddenly all about unnoticed yet monumental black women.) Sanaa Lathan shows us that it's not only Walter Lee who's trying to find mature footing, especially when she's plunging into Beneatha's African phase. The rest of the cast, urged into coursing life by True Colors Theater Company artistic director Leon, is top-notch; that definitely includes Bill Nunn as Walter Lee's hapless sidekick in addition to those mentioned above.

A Raisin in the Sun was potent stuff at the end of the '50s. Today, it clearly bears the mark of an exceptional playwright's foremost talent: vision. Obviously engaged politically and smart as a whip, Hansberry proves to have been prescient about any number of things. For example, Beneatha cuts her hair at one point, presaging the Afro look that swept through black culture in the '60s. At another juncture, Joseph Asagai gives an impassioned speech about his planned return to Nigeria -- a speech that's currently being echoed in international headlines. And as for African-American households being held together by women, that state of affairs may be worse now than it was 45 years ago.

Exuberant hurrahs for Hansberry's perspicacity. A Raisin in the Sun demonstrates that a well-made play is timelessly essential when it's made this well.

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