Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun was ground-breaking when it premiered in 1959. The first play by a black woman playwright to open on Broadway, Raisin was also the first Broadway production staged by a black director, Lloyd Richards; he would go on to head the Yale School of Drama.
Its story of a black working-class Chicago family facing life-changing decisions drew black and white theatergoers, audiences who were deeply moved by Hansberry’s provocative, insightful play. A Raisin in the Sun was — and still is — one powerful drama.
Palm Beach Dramaworks has just opened its new production of Hansberry’s play, one that underscores the drama’s edge-of-your-seat timelessness. Staged by guest director Seret Scott, the show features a seamlessly blended cast of South Florida performers and other regional theater veterans, actors whose unifying quality is excellence. Anyone who loves a great production of a well-made play should seek it out.
A Raisin in the Sun, whose title comes from the Langston Hughes poem Harlem, tells the story of the Younger family. Matriarch Lena (Pat Bowie), her son Walter Lee (Ethan Henry) and his wife Ruth (Shirine Babb), their son Travis (Mekeil Benjamin, alternating with Joshua Valbrun) and Walter’s college-student sister Beneatha (Joniece Abbott Pratt) live together in a rundown but tidy two-bedroom apartment on Chicago’s south side. Their home (by designer Paul Tate dePoo III) is so small that Travis has to sleep on the loveseat-sized sofa, and the Youngers have to race their neighbors to a communal bathroom.
Lena’s husband, a hard-working man who could never seem to get ahead, has passed away. Now a $10,000 life insurance check is due to arrive, and everyone seems to have different ideas about what to do with the money.
Lena and Ruth, both doing wearying domestic work, would like a house with a yard. Beneatha wants to go to medical school. And Walter Lee, a chauffeur whose ambitions have him nearly jumping out of his skin, wants to start a liquor store with a couple of his friends.
This familial conflict over pathways into the future is deepened by Hansberry’s exploration of the power structure within the Younger family, a younger generation’s experiments with identity, and racism intruding from the outside world.
Bowie and Henry are superb as a mother and son at odds, two people bound by love but certain their way is the best. Each delineates and illuminates the journey Lena and Walter Lee take, Bowie’s Lena coming to understand that some of her actions have mirrored what a crushing society has done to her son, Henry’s tormented Walter Lee finally stepping up for his family.
Babb’s stoic Ruth and Pratt’s free-spirited Beneatha are a study in contrasts, as are Jordan Tisdale’s George and Marckenson Charles’ Joseph Asagai. Both men are courting Beneatha, but while George represents wealth and assimilation, Asagai is a wise young African man with dreams for his country — and for a future with the aspiring American doctor.
The Dramaworks production is beautifully designed, from the set with its faded floral wallpaper to Brian O’Keefe’s just-right ‘50s costumes, Joseph P. Oshry’s lighting and Richard Szczublewski’s sound design, which ties together scenes with jazz that seems to warn of conflicts to come.
Certainly, a theatergoer’s perspective on A Raisin in the Sun has shifted over time, evolving just as the world has. Bruce Norris’ Pulitzer Prize-winning Clybourne Park, a 2010 play directly inspired by A Raisin in the Sun, vividly reflects that evolution. But as with Death of a Salesman or The Glass Menagerie, a great production of A Raisin in the Sun — and that’s what you’ll find at Dramaworks — can move you just as much as the 1959 original did with its audiences back in the day.