I don’t believe He brought me this far (to leave me.)
In 1959, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun was a groundbreaking, electrifying original work of theater when it made its debut on Broadway. Today, the recognized American drama masterpiece and its potent themes are as relevant today as it was more than fifty years ago.
The emotionally lacerating production of Compass Rose Theater’s meaningful season opener is a poetic stroke of directing artistry in the capable hands of Lottie E. Porch-Bright. No matter how many times you have read the iconic novel or have seen a production of the play, Compass Rose’s production of A Raisin in the Sun is a stirring example of how you can never get enough of a good thing.
This production underscores a time of racial segregation and tension, and is an accurate and truthful depiction of the struggles of an urban, working-class, black family. Setting the tone is the strong messaging and still contemporary themes in Hanesberry’s classic of change, transformation, and redefining the meaning of home.
With the soulful backdrop of the blues being played, Porch-Bright effectively executes a stylistic stroke of visual imagery with a vivid collage prelude of portrait character moments on stage before one word is uttered. Properties/Set Decorator Joann Gidos creates the perfectly cramped, deteriorating apartment space with personalized touches of ‘homey” familiarity and the detailed specific furniture and period detail surrounded by wallpapered and fading paint walls.
A $10,000 insurance claim from the passing of the family patriarch creates conflicting drama and future plans for how to best spend the money. Lena Younger (Mama) and her daughter-in-law want a little home to call their home to better fit the needs of their growing family. Beneatha, the younger of Mama’s two children, has plans for medical school fulfilling her dreams of being a doctor. But her eldest son Walter Lee’s burning desire of owning his business won’t rest.
As Walter Lee says, “Sometimes it’s hard to let the future begin.”
Encapsulating the entrepreneurial spirit, Walter Lee represents the American dream. The Younger family is caught between their harsh Chicago Southside reality and the opportunity to live life in full bloom. Breaking down the barriers of race, envisioning brighter days ahead, A Raisin in the Sun is a story about the transformation of all five members of the Younger family and the change in their environment and domestic situations.
Kahlil X Daniel as Walter Lee, the weary but motivated chauffeur, gives a solid performance that still has room to be grounded and take root in the grittiness of the subtext of his character. The freedom of fully exploring the intentions of Walter Lee’s internal struggle will be a complex release that at this performance scratched the surface of the character’s coming into manhood and the expanse of Daniel’s talent.
I am especially impressed by the three strongly written female roles of this ensemble cast, admired for the craftily written three-dimensional characters with wide ranging emotional arcs.
After her glowing portrayal of Sofia in The Color Purple (Toby’s Dinner Theater), it’s exciting to see Theresa Cunningham, the 2013 Helen Hayes Award winner (Outstanding Supporting Actress, Resident Musical for The Color Purple) back on the stage in a substantive role worthy of her wide-ranging talent. Cunningham provides impassioned depth as Lena Younger, and the God-fearing, praise-raising “Mama” matriarch of the Younger Family is the heart and moral center of the story. She is a commanding presence.
When the audience is first introduced to Beneatha (Nikole Williams), she is an idealist; by the end Beneatha’s world is a mirage. Beneatha is such a juicy role and Nikole Williams takes advantage of the opportunity to deliver a spirited, fresh performance of a young woman who yearns for new experiences, self discovery, and something more.
Beneatha is dating two different men that represent African-American culture yet challenges the ideals of culture, race, gender, and religion that she has grown up identifying with. The clash among the classes is also represented. The wealthy George Murchison (Clayton Pelham, Jr is pitch-perfect and amusing in his straight-laced role) represents class tensions that exist within the African-American culture, and the pragmatism of Nigerian Joseph Asagai (Paul Cottman) excels as the confident pursuer and worldly-wise man.) confronts her African heritage and idealism.
There is a pulsating warmth and inner joy to Ruth (Walter Lee’s wife) that is in a constant battle with the stressful conditions that consume her. The duality is an interesting dynamic and though not a showy role, it is Renee A. Tolson subtle charm who gives the character a struggling sensitivity that slowly pulls you in. Tolson’s consistency and vulnerability believably create a character that carries the weight of the household on her shoulders as she strives for a better life.
The insurance benefit check arrives, and Lena Younger surprises the family by following through with a purchase of their first home – that happens to be in the all white neighborhood of Clybourne Park. She intends for the new home to be the family legacy.
Then there is the Clybourne Park Improvement Committee.
Despite the repeated “you people” references casually being thrown around by Karl Lindner (Jim Osteen), the Chair of the “Welcoming” Clybourne Park Improvement Committee, he denies any of the actions by him or the Committee’s are a race prejudice issue. “You just can’t force people to change their hearts,” he explains.
What happens next addresses the mounting pressures in the Younger household, forever changing the course of all of their lives. A highlight and another distinctive choice by Director Lottie E. Porch-Bright is her incorporation of the strong singing voices of the cast members as we hear them individually and collectively sing the James Cleveland Gospel classic, “I Don’t Believe He Brought Me This Far to (Leave Me).”
Rounding out the solid cast is the likeable performance by Noah A Hughes (Travis Younger) as Walter Lee’s and Ruth’s son and a scene-stealing moment by Niko Tarlay (Bobo) whose affected performance immediately raised the level of intensity and emotional impact when he stepped onto the stage.
The quality of the lighting by Joey Gutheman and sound design by Kathleen Boidy was consistent and befitting the narrative presentation, and Julie Bays costume design is suitably simple with the exception of Beneathea’s African two-piece outfit.
In 1960, A Raisin the Sun play was nominated for four Tony Awards, and won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award (Hansberry became the first African American to win the prestigious Award.) and in 1961 it was turned into an award-winning film starring Sidney Poitier (who also starred on Broadway). The original production made history as the first play written by a black woman (as well as the first play with a black director) to be produced on Broadway. In 2014, in the second revival of the play, A Raisin the Sun won three Tony Awards: Best Revival of a Play, Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role, and Best Direction.
A Raisin the Sun is one of the most important plays written about the Black American experience although its themes are universal. Langston Hughes ‘Harlem’ poetry questioning the human nature of a universal truth inspired and informs the play.
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore –
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over-
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
Compass Rose Theater’s resonating collaboration sheds light on the absorbing highs and lows of A Raisin in the Sun embracing change, transformation and the potential of the human spirit. The unflinching vision, evolving emotional reveal, and the tenacity of Lorraine Hansberry’s drama of what happens when dreams are deferred still packs a powerful punch.
Running Time: Two hours with one 15 minute intermission.