Keeping it Real
In the Rep's revival, Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 portrait of a black family striving to advance maintains its relevance.
Lorraine Hansberry‘s A Raisin in the Sun, one of the most poignant and powerful plays in the American dramatic canon, dates back to 1959. How to make this play, about the aspirations of an African-American family in Chicago, fresh and meaningful for today’s audience?
The Milwaukee Rep has figured it out, starting with a hyper-realistic set. The lights come up on a modest 1950s apartment during the early morning hours, the Younger family’s place on the south side of Chicago. Ruth Younger (Ericka Ratcliff) emerges from a bedroom clad in a pink robe and a white head wrap. She moves to the small kitchen, lights one of the burners, and begins to fry eggs. None of this is pretend — real fire sends cooking aromas into the the Quadracci Powerhouse Theater.
But A Raisin in the Sun doesn’t waste time in getting to its heavy issues of socioeconomic, racial and gender inequalities. The family anxiously awaits the arrival of a $10,000 insurance check coming to Lena in the wake of Walter Sr.’s death. This money is at the heart of everything, from 10-year-old Travis’ need for an extra 50 cents to Walter Lee’s investment schemes to Beneatha’s medical school tuition. Will the payout improve the Youngers’ lives, or will it drive them apart? Will it erase racial and gender-related chasms?
Ratcliff, Stevens, Johnson, Oglesby, and Langford bring just the right balance of tension and levity to these issues and the right energy into their respective characters. Ratcliff has a chip on her shoulder, but a sensitive side as well. Stevens is so likable as the 10-year-old Travis. Johnson’s intensity never abates, and that intensity is crucial to the play. Langford, with her affected accent and hilarious attempt at African dancing, draws the idealistic Beneatha well.
But Oglesby, magnificent as the matriarch Lena, commands the stage. She keeps the other characters in line and the audience focused. Whether it’s reprimanding Walter Lee and Beneatha, showering Travis with hugs, or succumbing to her sadness when the check finally arrives, Oglesby is spot on. Her simple facial expressions communicate volumes. Her face folds into grief upon seeing the insurance check as she realizes what the money truly symbolizes. She’s also a great with comedy, as when Lena cheekily appropriates Beneatha’s words while flirting with her daughter’s Nigerian suitor, Joseph Asagai (Cristophe Abiel). And Oglesby clearly knows how to put her foot down; as the first act concludes, she is riveting as she dresses down Walter Lee and challenges him to finally step up and become a man.
The Rep has assembled actors well suited to their roles. Abiel’s Nigerian accent is very believable, as are his somewhat awkward mannerisms. Gavin Lawrence, as Beneatha’s other admirer, the nouveau riche George Murchison, deftly plays the pretention card. Then there’s James Pickering as Karl Lindner, of the Clybourne Park “welcoming committee.” It’s pretty uncomfortable to tell an entire family that they can’t live in your neighborhood; Pickering hits the right notes of condescension and clumsiness. Director Ron OJ Parson brought the actors together in a unified interpretation.
If a A Raisin in the Sun has a shortcoming, it lies in Hansberry’s occasional tendency to turn her flesh and blood creations into allegories. Beneatha represents what the future might hold for both women and African Americans; Lena has her foot firmly planted in the past, where family trumps all. Some arguments between past and present feel a little drawn out and repetitive. But mostly, the people of A Raisin in the Sun are as real as the eggs in that skillet.
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.