Matthew Reddin

Ron OJ Parson set to retell “A Raisin in the Sun”

Lorraine Hansberry's groundbreaking play about a black family trying to pursue their dreams closes the Milwaukee Rep's season.

By - Mar 14th, 2013 04:00 am
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Ron OJ Parson, resident artist at Chicago’s Court Theatre, will direct “A Raisin in the Sun” to close the Rep’s season.

In 1959, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun first appeared at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Broadway. Its mere production was groundbreaking enough, as the first Broadway play written by a black woman, with an almost-entirely black cast. But Raisin is no mere historical footnote: almost immediately, the play received massive critical acclaim, and is today seen as one of the greatest plays in the American canon, listed in the same breath as Death of a Salesman or The Glass Menagerie.

More than 50 years later, director Ron OJ Parson hopes to resurrect that same spirit at the Milwaukee Rep, with their season-ending production of Hansberry’s famous work.

It’s not Parson’s first time at the Rep – he directed August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom in 2011 – nor is it his first time with A Raisin in the Sun. He’s directed it twice before, played Walter Lee three times, and was a Moving Man and understudy in Roundabout Theatre’s 25th anniversary production in 1986. And that’s not even counting the seventh grade production where he played Karl Lindner, the white man who serves as a quasi-antagonist. (This is a momentarily befuddling detail from Parson, a black man, and he clarifies with a laugh: “My school, we didn’t have any white kids. I had the token white role; I was light-complexioned.” There you go.)

For the uninitiated: Raisin tells the story of the Youngers: matriarch Lena, son Walter Lee, his wife Ruth and his sister Beneatha, a black family struggling to make it in early ‘50s-Chicago. At the start of the play, they’re awaiting an insurance check being paid for the untimely death of Big Walter, Lena’s husband, which will give them the chance they need to change their life – especially once Lena puts down a deposit on a house in all-white neighborhood Clybourne Park.

The Younger family, dreaming of a better life, is the subject of Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun.” Photo credit Michael Brosilow.

Since 1959, that story has been told and retold in a variety of ways, from a well-known film in ’61 starring most of the original cast and the Roundabout production, which restored a number of scenes cut from the original for political or pacing purposes later instated by the late Hansberry’s executor, ex-husband Robert Nemiroff. With one major exception – the absence of an added character, Mrs. Johnson – Parson is performing this longer version of the play, meaning even audience members who think they know A Raisin in the Sun could be surprised by the Rep’s production. “It makes for a more complete play,” Parsonsaid. “And I was involved in that [1986] production, where it was important for them to have it, so it’s always been important for me to include it.”

Part of the reason the Rep chose to stage Raisin now, Parson says, is to align with the Quadracci Powerhouse’s previous show, Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park. Artistic director Mark Clements had initially wanted to go so far as to stage the plays in repertory, with the same actor playing Lindner in both casts, although that didn’t actually occur.

But while the timing is good in the short term, Parson also sees it as good in the long term, believing classic plays like this need to be redone continually as years go by. “Mark put it great the other day when we were talking: ‘These great plays – every generation needs to have these plays come out, so the next generation can see them.’ … I want to show people what the true vision or true essence of the original play was, that even influenced Bruce Norris to want to do his play.”

And Parson believes that play has aged well, both because Hansberry was radically ahead of her time in predicting the civil rights and women’s movements – he points out that one of the originally omitted scenes, where Beneatha reveals she has cut her hair and left it in an unstraighted afro, would have been “unheard of” on either end of the ‘50s – and because many of the issues addressed in the play are still largely unresolved: housing inequality, gender roles, class conflict, and racism, implicit and explicit.

But while the play can be seen as ending on an ambiguous note, Parson chooses to focus on the optimistic angle of the path the Youngers’ eventual decision puts them on. “They’re about to go through hell in that neighborhood. … But you could still call it uplifting, as far as in context of American society. They’re going to initiate a movement, progress as Americans.”

History, and the fictional history presented by Clybourne Park, proves that doesn’t always have the exact effect desired. But if nothing else, Raisin hinges on taking that gamble – buying the house and hoping and working for the best.

The Milwaukee Rep’s production of A Raisin in the Sun opens Friday, March 15 and runs through April 14. Tickets range from $10 to $65 and can be purchased at (414) 224-9490 or the online box office.

Cast: Ericka Radcliffe as Ruth Younger, Braylen Stevens as Travis Younger, Chiké Johnson as Walter Lee Younger, Mildred Marie Langford as Beneatha Younger, Greta Oglesby as Lena Younger, Christophé Abiel as Joseph Asagai, Trequon Tate as Bobo, James Pickering as Karl Lindner, Lamar Jefferson and Tyrone Phillips as Moving Men

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