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The many pleasures of 'A Raisin in the Sun'

Posted: March 15, 2012 - 12:01am

Get a ticket to Perseverance Theatre’s production of Lorraine Hansberry’s Tony-nominated play “A Raisin in the Sun” soon. Go to the theater early. Give yourself some time to look at the set, because Art Rotch’s design deserves its own moment. A working stove, a smudged kitchen window, and a deep kitchen sink anchor the cramped and crackled South Side of Chicago apartment of the Younger family. Visual layers of the 1950s establish the period: a record player with an Ellington album leaning up against it, a black Ma Bell dial-a-number telephone on its own little wooden table, a copper jello mold hanging on the kitchen wall, a percolator coffee pot on the greasy stove, and even a practical wall light-switch with round buttons to push on and off.

As I sat in the audience on opening night, I wondered if the acting would match the quality of the set. I was nervous. Staging a classic is always risky. “Raisin in the Sun” is very important in the history of theater, as the first production on Broadway with a script written by an African-American playwright, a 28-year-old woman. Winning the 1959 New York Drama Critic’s Best Play Award, it was one of the first major works to offer a realistic view of an African-American family. Reviving and restaging an award-winning and studied script has to be done right or many things can go terribly wrong.

House lights went down, stage lights came up, and then I lost track of time. Perseverance’s production of Hansberry’s play is so good I forgot I was watching actors. Only moments into the show, the actors are not acting but are members of the Younger family, anticipating the arrival of an insurance check that could change their lives. Honest, grounded, interesting, three-dimensional players working together from beginning to end took me on an emotional roller coaster ride. Thoughtful staging from director Jade King Carroll sets up duos and triangles to show the dynamics of the three-generational family.

At the top of the show, domestic worker Ruth, played by Ericka Lee, wakes up her son, whose bed is the living room couch. She knows her way around the kitchen so well she could probably cook her son’s oatmeal blindfolded. Lee’s portrayal of a weary yet loving mother and wife is consistent, intriguing, and especially poignant in the boiling hot moment when her husband Walter, played by Keith McCoy, ignores the news of her pregnancy. Like any good wife, when she asks her husband “What kind of eggs do you want?” and he replies, “Not scrambled,” of course she scrambles his eggs. On opening night, they were even a little burned.

McCoy’s Walter is sexy, loud and bold. His deep, round voice, bottled energy and cocky postures erase other portrayals of Walter. And this Ruth and this Walter go together.

Into the morning grogginess of the opening scene flits Beneatha, Walter’s sister, a pre-med student and future activist. Shannon Dorsey’s portrayal of the feisty sister hits all the notes. The slick, rich collegiate, played perfectly by Corey Demont-Spruill, and the smiling, winsome Nigerian, played superbly by Jamil Mangan, are future partners Beneatha plays with like a cat who has caught a mouse. Dorsey’s eyes alone keep the two suitors at arm’s length. Her gestures, articulate delivery and light lively movement capture Beneatha.

The glue of the family, Mama, is the last one to wake up on the morning we meet the Youngers. Picking up after her grandson, scolding her grown daughter to put on a robe, tending to her almost dead houseplant, Mama, played by Lizan Mitchell, is truly the grand mother. When the family comes apart, Mama decides to invest in a house, fulfilling her dream of giving her grandson a place to grow, but the house happens to be in an unwelcoming all-white neighborhood. Mama must believably calm her raging son, quiet her revolutionary daughter, encourage her bewildered daughter-in-law and nurture her grandson. Mitchell honestly shows the range of emotions elicited by these interactions, so necessary for this play to work. She claims the part, she owns the role, she is Mama.

Into the midst of a family in turmoil appears Mr. Linder, a white man and chairman of the welcoming committee from the new neighborhood, who unwelcomes the Youngers with a buy-out offer. Ben Brown, delivering Mr. Lindner’s “Do not move into our neighborhood” message, looks and sounds like a rabbit trapped in a pack of wolves. The fear on his face alone could carry the character, but Brown adds squints and stutters that are humorous in this insanely bitter moment.

The costumes designed by Rick Silaj keep us immersed in the 1950s story. This is not the stereotypical 1950s bobby-sox and poodle skirts white world, this is South Side Chicago in the 1950s. From the color palette to the silhouettes, no costume looks like a costume. The actors are very comfortable in these clothes.

The opening night audience did not pause for even a second to stand in unison and applaud.

Congratulations to the designers, director, actors and production staff.

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