Production shows why Lorraine Hansberry’s drama is a modern classic.
On March 11, 1959, the first play by a black woman dramatist to reach Broadway opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.
But this milestone tells only part of the story. Lorraine Hansberry’s family drama “A Raisin in the Sun” not only brought an authentic experience of black America into the theatrical mainstream for the first time, it also led the way for crossover black playwrights, including the late Seattle dramatist August Wilson.
And long after Hansberry’s untimely death at age 35, her first play (named for a line in a Langston Hughes’ poem: “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?”) endures as a modern classic. It has spawned several films, a musical and spinoff plays. The most recent Broadway revival in 2014 starred Denzell Washington.
‘A Raisin in the Sun’
by Lorraine Hansberry. Through Oct. 30 at Seattle Repertory Theatre, Bagley Wright Theatre, 155 Mercer St., Seattle; $17-$100 (206-443-2222 or seattlerep.org).
Six regional companies are presenting “Raisin” this season, among them Seattle Repertory Theatre. Directed by respected local actor and teacher Timothy McCuen Piggee, the Rep’s 2016-17 season-opening production is solid, absorbing and streaked with humor and pathos — though it can be a blunt instrument when it hammers home some of the play’s high emotions and politically charged rhetoric, rather than nuancing them.
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Hansberry drew an affectionate, empathetic, incisive portrait of three generations in the working-class Younger family, crammed together in a shabby little South Side apartment in geographically and economically segregated Chicago. Suffering a bad case of “ghetto-itis,” the adults are aching to realize different notions of the American dream.
For restless, embittered Walter Lee Younger (Richard Prioleau), that means busting out of a servile chauffeur job and investing his late father’s $10,000 life insurance payout in a get-rich-quick liquor-store scheme.
His stern, loving mother, Lena (Denise Burse), wants to put her daughter Beneatha (Claudine Mboligikpelani Nako), through medical school. She and Walter’s careworn wife, Ruth (Mia Ellis), long to move away from the tough streets Ruth’s young son Travis plays in and own a proper house in a safer enclave — and the only choice may be an all-white community, hostile to racial integration.
Well evident at the Rep, the warmth, humor and heart-tugging aspects of “Raisin in the Sun” led many critics to embrace it as a “universal” tale of family life. But what also stands out today, as the Youngers’ hopes are stoked, crushed and recharged, is Hansberry’s prescient, specific examination of gender, generational and class tensions among African Americans who, after some civil rights strides, still suffer the effects of virulent, systemic racism. (Hansberry’s own family tried unsuccessfully to integrate a white Chicago subdivision and fought its racial restrictions all the way to the Supreme Court.)
You’re reminded that the battle for civil rights is ongoing today, as “Raisin” unfolds on a Michael Ganio set evoking the frayed coziness and claustrophobia of the Younger apartment. This is a home where arguments often flare and doors slam, especially when the embittered, volatile Walter Lee, equating manhood with wealth, rages at his relations for not backing his business scheme.
Prioleau is a roaring, active volcano in these clashes, and his rejections of Ellis’ deflated Ruth are nasty. But for much of the play, we get few glints of the yearning, vulnerability and, yes, charm that make Walter more than a self-absorbed bully.
The petite Burse stands tall as Lena, radiating pride and concern as she clings to old-school values, while trying to understand the needs of a very different generation.
Most vibrant is Nako’s Beneatha. A character based on Hansberry at 20, this questioning, independent young woman is funny and bold as she stumbles and matures into adulthood. She’s part of a more militant new wave of young, black Americans, shaped by the modern civil-rights movement and an emergent black pride and internationalism.
Nako also rocks the snappy dresses and African garb designed by Melanie Taylor Burgess. And kudos, too, to Matt Starritt’s soundscape of raw blues and cool jazz.