A Raisin in the Sun still shines fifty years later

A Raisin in the Sun was written over fifty years ago, but it remains vivid and relevant today. Though the final act is weakened by a sequence of preachy, 1950s-style dramatic speeches, in which each character in turn bares his or her soul, in every other respect these people are multi-faceted and true to the bone, and their concerns feel entirely contemporary. This reflects Lorraine Hansberry's brilliance as a playwright, of course, but it's also because the realities of black life in America haven't changed as profoundly as we'd like to think. Housing discrimination is illegal, but whites and blacks still tend to live in separate areas, and racism remains a burning and divisive issue. Like all teenagers, young blacks wrestle with issues of identity, but their confusion is often exacerbated by a sense of outsiderdom and questions about whether to fit in or rebel.

The Younger family — grandmother Lena, her son, Walter Lee, and her twenty-year-old daughter, Beneatha, as well as Walter Lee's wife, Ruth, and young son Travis — live in a roach-infested Chicago apartment with a down-the-hall bathroom. Travis sleeps on the couch; Ruth frets at her closet-sized kitchen; Lena tends a spindly, sunlight-deprived plant and dreams of owning a small house and a patch of dirt. As the play opens, Lena is about to receive a $10,000 insurance payment for the death of her husband, and she wants to spend it on a new home and to send Beneatha to medical school. But Walter Lee, frustrated with his job as a chauffeur and the family's poverty — both Lena and Ruth work as domestics — is entertaining fantasies of wealth and independence. He believes he can achieve them by investing in a liquor store with a couple of drinking buddies.

This bald plot outline does no justice to the subtle skein of interactions in the play, the political and artistic questioning, the humor and despair, the emotional realities Hansberry lays bare. Loud, overtly emotional, bullying toward Ruth, Walter Lee constantly attempts to assert a manhood he himself has trouble believing in. He'd seem like nothing but a drunken, self-pitying lump if it weren't for his occasional tenderness, his passionate love for his son and the crazy, playful joy he sometimes exhibits. Russell Hornsby brings physical expressiveness and a disarming vitality to this role. Ruth could easily come across as one of those long-suffering, devoted and emotionally drained, dishraggy women — a black Linda Loman — but Kim Staunton won't have it. She makes Ruth the heart of this production, giving the character both a trembling vulnerability and a spine of steel. As portrayed by Marlene Warfield, Lena is stern and sometimes annoyingly self-righteous — you can see where some of her son's insecurity comes from. You never doubt the kindness at her core, however. Beneatha, played by a graceful Dawn Scott, is the only family member who can raise her eyes beyond the grinding dailiness and envision a different kind of future. She's a student, beginning to sift and evaluate ideas, and her two suitors exemplify her search. There's George, from a wealthy assimilated family and looking for a conventional wife; Tyee Tilghman brings all his natural dignity and charm to the role of this stiff-shouldered putz. And there's Joseph Asagai, the man from Nigeria who throws open the window to a wider world for the dazzled Beneatha, encouraging her to stop straightening her hair, bringing gifts of music and clothing that connect her to her African heritage, and explaining to her the need for courage and persistence in the quest for change. Draped in the beautiful fabric Asagai has given her, Beneatha is transformed momentarily from an insecure girl into a beautiful and dignified woman. Sheldon Woodley makes the role of Asagai sing.

Marlene Warfield and Kim Staunton in A Raisin in the Sun.
Terry Shapiro
Marlene Warfield and Kim Staunton in A Raisin in the Sun.

Details

Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through October 31, Stage Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org.

In fact, under the direction of Israel Hicks, this entire Denver Center Theatre Company production sings, becoming a glowing, moving tapestry that illuminates both its own time period and ours.

 
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