Seasoned director Liesl Tommy adds another play to her extensive repertoire with “A Raisin in the Sun,” a production by the Huntington Theatre Company that is showing at the Boston University Theatre until Sunday, April 7. Written by Lorraine Hansberry as a reflection of her own family’s struggle against discrimination in 1950s racially-segregated Chicago, “A Raisin in the Sun” depicts the universality of desiring the “American dream” through one family’s pursuit of it.
As the production opens with scenes of loiterers on a Chicago street corner, the cleverly-designed set turns clockwise and reveals different rooms of the Younger family home—a tiny, two bedroom apartment. Audiences are introduced to the Younger family as they scramble sleepily from their beds and get ready for their long day ahead. Walter Lee Younger directs misogynistic comments toward his wife Ruth, to which she responds with quick, snappy remarks which, to Hansberry’s credit, are humorous and not cliché.
In fact, the play relies on humor to explore complex circumstances. Hansberry’s bold characters are able to make the audience laugh, even as they deal with serious topics like racial discrimination and cultural identity. Walter’s sisterBeneatha engages in a sincere search for her ancestral African identity that includes adjusting her physical appearance, often with entertaining results. The family also has a darkly sarcastic response to a visit from a racist community representative. In this way, the production balances serious themes with equally memorable wit.
Actress Kimberly Scott, who has a vast array of Broadway plays and film credits under her belt, plays the warm but audacious Lena Younger, Walter’s mother and matriarch of the family. The wizened Lena grew up during the Jim Crow era, and loves her children and grandchild, though she does not understand their preoccupation with money and constant desire for “more.” The moment Scott appeared on stage curled up in a bed, the audience applauded—a testimony to Scott’s talents on stage. Scott deftly portrays a wide range of emotions that are raw and sincere. She delivers a commanding performance through her portrayal of both Lena’s warm coddling affection towards her grandchild, Travis, and her furious hopelessness over her son’s mistakes and devastating financial loss.
Lena’s inability to understand her children’s wants underpins only one of the many rifts that exist within the Younger family. The individual frustrations experienced by each family member, coupled with living in such close proximity to each other, erupts into sometimes destructive interactions. Walter Lee Younger and Ruth have visible communication problems while Walter and Beneatha also have a tumultuous relationship because Walter doesn’t understand the importance of Beneatha’s medical school education.
There is something incredibly moving about the Younger family’s frustrations and their yearning for a better life, as they continuously stomp on the cockroaches in their tiny apartment. Their desires are desires that are so universally understood that it’s difficult for viewers to not sincerely feel for the family. As Lena and Ruth open the ten-thousand-dollar insurance payment that arrived at their doorstep, audience members waited with bated breath to hear what was in the envelope. As viewers heard about Walter Lee’s disastrous business venture, gasps scattered the HuntingtonTheatre auditorium.
With a strong, experienced cast, the production advances into themes of race and oppression that don’t often appear so blatantly on stage. Fifty-four years after “A Raisin in the Sun”’s Broadway premiere, the play’s depiction of a family fighting for a better life despite societal oppression remains, unfortunately, relevant today.
Published in the Wellesley News on 4/3/2013