A Raisin in the Sun: 50 Years Later Still Relevant
Photo by Emily Talbott Terri Renee White and Santana Draper as grandmother and grandson in A Raisin in the Sun
Lorraine Hansberry's acclaimed play A Raisin in the Sun opened on Broadway in 1959 and received four Tony nominations. It chronicles how an African-American family purchases a house in a white neighborhood, while a neighborhood association attempts to persuade them not to occupy it.
This is a domestic drama, laced with humor, and playwright Hansberry provides cleanly-drawn characterizations of a loving family, though bickering sometimes blots out the affection. Three generations reside in a two-bedroom apartment, and the arrival of an insurance check for $10,000 offers the opportunity to move to more spacious quarters - or to serve as seed money for other ventures, which is one of the conflicts.
The household is led by matriarch Lena Younger, and Terri Renee White is excellent in conveying her moral fiber and a keen sense of permitting her two children to develop in their own fashion and to make their own choices. Her daughter-in-law, Ruth, is portrayed by Tamekia Jackson, who finds her inner strength and endurance. Monique Holmes plays the daughter, Beneatha, struggling to find her identity, and captures her vibrant youth and openness to change. Her grandson Travis is played by Santana Draper, who brings charm and energy to the youthful role.
Lena's son, Walter, is played by Jeff Brown, who has the most complex and difficult role, as Walter is a dreamer, but an acquisitive one, and is self-pitying, bitter, and less responsible than he might be. Brown succeeds scene-by-scene, but the inner Walter never clearly emerges, and the climatic showdown loses some of its power as a result. The problem may lie with the playwright, who has made Walter naïve, somewhat unscrupulous, enormously self-centered, and volatile to a fault.
Beneatha has two suitors, George Murchinson (Andrew Barrett), from a well-to-do African-American family, and Joseph Asagai (Atseko Factor), from Nigeria. Barrett captures the preppy look and attitude of an assimilated youth, while Factor conveys not only a sense of idealism, but also the capacity to make idealism look like fun - this is an actor to be watched. Devan Callihan plays Bobo, an acquaintance of Walter, and is persuasive in his brief appearance.
The only white character is Karl Lindner (Reid Self), head of a "welcoming" committee from the landowners association in the all-white neighborhood. He is written as an unconvincing bumbler, and played that way as well, so that he seems to be a parody rather than a character - a different interpretation might strengthen the scenes he is in.
The work is directed by Sedric Willis, who has delivered brilliantly on the inter-family dynamics. Willis keeps the pace appropriately fluid, and finds the heart and appeal in the aspirations and dreams of an American family. This family is African-American, but the situation of unfulfilled dreams may be increasingly prevalent in white America as well, as younger generations find they have less purchasing power than did their parents.
Playwright Hansberry's effort received a Tony nomination as best play, though William Gibson's The Miracle Worker won the award that year. While over half a century has passed, the play seems fresh today, as it deals with human beings, not simply an evolving cultural situation. The loss of Hansberry to pancreatic cancer in 1965, at the age of 34, deprived America of a gifted playwright with the capacity to find and elevate the inner strivings of humanity.
An acclaimed play seems fresh today - a talented cast finds the drama, and the humor, as an African-American family deals with an inheritance that may change their lives forever.
A Raisin in the Sun continues through February 2, at HFAC, 10760 Grant Road. For information or ticketing, call 281-685-6374, or contact www.houstonfac.com.