The greatest art gives voice to the particularity of experience that inspired it, while also striking universal chords across time and cultures. Lorraine Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun, which broke onto Broadway in 1959, remains as relevent and moving today, in Alchemy Theater’s impeccable production.
“Just looking at Langston Hughes’ poem, ‘What Happens to a Dream Deferred?’, the characters can claim one or two lines each, in terms of emotionally and psychologically,” observes director Dawn Renee Jones,
referencing the inspiration for the play’s title. “Who’s dream has dried up? Who’s still holding on to their dream? Who’s dream has turned rotten? That’s the profundity of Lorraine Hansberry.”
Beating out established theatrical giants, a 29-year-old Hansberry won the 1959 Critics’ Circle Award, Broadway’s top honor.
Amanda Brown’s set and Phyllis Hankerson’s costumes, together with jazz classics create a 1959 ambience for a South Side Chicago black family’s struggle to realize their dreams. Waiting on their deceased father’s $10,000 insurance check, everyone has plans. Southern-migration matriarch Lena’s goal of modest home-ownership (in a primarily white neighborhood) collides with her son, Walter Lee’s ambitions to invest in a liquor store. Poverty and whites’ daily disrespect assault Walter Lee’s 11-year marriage to Ruthie.
“Knowing the emotional valleys and peaks of this character, any actor who’s studied and practiced for awhile wants to see if they can tackle such an amazing character and touch the depths of his emotions,” says Penumbra Theatre member, Kevin D. West, who embodies the play’s protagonist, Walter Lee Younger.
West is unforgettable as the brooding, yet tender Walter Lee—no small feat, with Sidney Poirtier establishing the role on stage and screen.
Children’s Theatre veteran Artie Thompson’s Lena is a commanding presence, going from boundless nurturance to stony bewilderment at her children’s rebellion against “traditional” expectations—both white society’s and her own. Her college student daughter, Beneatha, played with definitive verve by Christiana Clark, dreams big even by today’s female standards.
“Beneatha was way ahead of the feminist curve,” Jones says. “An
African American 20-year-old woman in 1958, saying she doesn’t care if she marries or not, she wants to be a doctor and go to Africa and save the world!”
Ernest M. Simpkin oozes snobbery as the wealthy beau Lena
hopes her daughter marries. But it’s the African college student, Joseph Asagai, played by newcomer Stephen Menya (a 1996 Olympian from Kenya), who’s winning the race for Beneatha’s heart.
“Asagai was the first African character who wasn’t wearing a loincloth, carrying a spear and saying ‘ugabuga,’ what we saw via Tarzan movies. He’s well-educated, attractive, well-dressed,” says Jones. “Hansberry’s introduction of that character was seminal in African American history because it gave us the opportunity to embrace our African-ness with pride and dignity.”
Henry Allen, a Jeune Lune regular, solidly play Linder, representing white opponents to the Youngers’ challenge to segregation—an issue that continues to resonate today in the Twin Cities, where African Americans make up 60 percent of our homeless population.
Like Lena Younger’s geranium reaching for sun in a narrow window, Hansberry’s masterpiece reveals the stubborn beauty of dreams that refuse to be deferred.
Hear Jones and West interviewed, on Tehuti, Sun., Feb. 19, 11 p.m., on KFAI, 90.3 FM in Mpls. and 106.7 FM in St. Paul (www.kfai.org). Raisin in the Sun plays through Sunday, Feb. 26. Thurs.-Sat.7:30 p.m., Sun.. 2 p.m., at North HIgh, 1500 James Ave. North MInneapolis (Entrance, door 19 on the Irving Ave. side). $10 763/522-6293 www.alchemytheater.org.