Updated: Nov 4
Lorraine Hansberry's drama explores the racial tension and antipathy within 1950’s societal standards and the struggles African-Americans faced with constructing their own racial identity.
NOVEMBER 2, 2023—COSTA MESA
In telling the story of the Youngers, a Black family aiming to move from a “rat trap” tenement in the ghetto to a house in a working-class white neighborhood, it both reports on and anticipates the racist backlash to upward mobility that has been a blight on American life since Reconstruction. And in dramatizing the effects of that backlash on Walter Lee, the feckless dreamer of the family, it offers a piercing psychological portrait of Black manhood in distress.
The supreme virtue of “A Raisin in the Sun,” Lorraine Hansberry’s play at South Coast Repertory (directed by Khanisha Foster and running through Nov. 12 on the Julianne Argyros Stage), is its proud, joyous proximity to its source, which is life as the dramatist has lived it. For a play is not an entity in itself, it is a part of history, and I had a predisposition to like “A Raisin in the Sun” long before the house lights dimmed.
Within ten minutes, however, my liking had matured into deep absorption. The relaxed, freewheeling interplay of a magnificent team of Black actors drew me unresistingly into a world of their making, their suffering, their thinking, and their rejoicing.
The play concerns an African-American family, the Younger family, who lives in a roach-ridden South-Side Chicago tenement, and whose matriarch, Lena (Veralyn Jones, SCR-“A Christmas Carol”) is set to inherit $10,000 in life insurance from her late husband’s policy. The family of five—Lena’s daughter Beneatha (Ashembaga “Ashe” Jaafaru, “Weathering”), her son Walter Lee (C.J. Lindsey, “Jitney”) and his wife Ruth (Tiffany Yvonne Cox, ABC-“Grey’s Anatomy”) and son Travis (Nathan Broxton, “The Little Mermaid, Jr.”)— shares a single bathroom down the hall with other tenants.
The prospect of the imminent inheritance engenders a furious storm of hopes, dreams, and impatient accusations. Even their feeble, light-deprived houseplant is promised a new life. It's a future Director Foster and Scenic Designer Josafath Reynoso literalize in a devastating coup de théâtre at the end.
As a whole, the cast is flawless, and the teamwork is effortless and exuberant. Walter Lee, Ruth’s defiant husband, serves as both protagonist and antagonist of the play. Deluded by dreams of financial success that nag at her nerves, an exhausted Ruth, despite her pregnancy, ekes out their income by doing strenuous domestic work in white homes and plays a key part in keeping the entire Younger family functioning. If she wants a day off, her mother-in-law advises her to plead flu, because it’s respectable (“Otherwise, they’ll think you’ve been cut up or something”).
Ruth doesn’t put a lot of stock in her husband’s abilities as a businessman or entrepreneur. Whenever Walter mentions his liquor store venture, Ruth brushes him off; he then lashes out at her and claims that she’s failed him. “I listen to you every day,” she says, “every night and every morning, and you never say nothing new. So, you would rather be Mr. Arnold than be his chauffeur? So—I would rather be living in Buckingham Palace.”
They all simply want to escape. And their chance comes now when Walter Lee’s mother receives that life insurance money. She rejects her son’s liquor store plan as well, and instead, buys a house for the family in a district where no person of color has ever lived—a neighborhood which Hansberry fictionally names “Clybourne Park.”
Almost at once, white opinion and racial bigotry raises its ugly head, in the shape of a deferential businessman from the local Improvement District, who puts the segregationist case so gently that it almost sounds like a plea for modified togetherness. That man is Karl Lindner (David Nevell, SCR-“Shakespeare in Love”), the only white character within Hansberry’s play and a representative of the Clybourne Park Improvement Association.
Lindner offers to buy the Youngers’ recently acquired home back from them to “spare them from further embarrassment.” Although that offer is rebuffed by Walter, he eventually accepts some of the money from Lena that remains after the down payment on the new house for his dream venture.
But before long Walter Lee has lost that money in a deal made with a deceitful chum. The character of Bobo is played by Erron Jay (“Harriet Jacobs”) and is introduced as a friend of Walter’s. When Bobo brings Walter the bad news, that they have fallen victim to Willy Harris's scam, one of their supposed friends, Walter is inconsolable, “THAT MONEY IS MADE OUT OF MY FATHER’S FLESH,” reflecting his belief that money is the lifeblood of human existence.
He announces forthwith that he will go down on his knees to any white man who will buy the house for more than its face value. From this degradation he is finally saved; shame brings him to his feet. The Youngers move out, and move on; a rung has been scaled, a point has been made, and a step into the future has been soberly taken.
Miss Hansberry’s piece is not without sentimentality, particularly in its reverent treatment of Walter Lee’s mother; brilliantly played by Ms. Jones, monumentally trudging, upbraiding, disapproving, and consoling. She forces her daughter, an agnostic, to repeat after her, “In my mother’s house there is still God.” Mr. Lindsey blends skittishness, apathy, and riotous despair into his portrait of the mercurial Walter Lee, and Ms. Cox, as his wife, is not afraid to let friction and frankness get the better of conventional affection.
Ms. Jaafaru’s Beneatha is an attractive college student who provides a young, independent, feminist perspective, and her desire to become a doctor demonstrates her great ambition. Throughout the play, she searches for her identity. She dates two very different men: Joseph Asagai (Junior Nyong’o, “King Lear”) and George Murchison (Tristan Turner, SCR-“La Havana Madrid”). She is at her happiest with Asagai, her Nigerian boyfriend, who has nicknamed her “Alaiyo,” which means “One for Whom Bread—Food—Is Not Enough.” She is at her most depressed and angry with George, her pompous, affluent boyfriend. She identifies much more with Asagai’s interest in rediscovering his African roots than with George’s interest in assimilating into white culture.
Hansberry’s play, whose title comes from Langston Hughe’s poem “Harlem” (also known as “A Dream Deferred"), was very popular and successful, and she won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best play of the year (the first Black woman to win this award) in 1960. Hamberry’s play was also nominated for four Tony Awards: Best Play, Best Actor in a Play (Sidney Poitier), Best Actress in a Play (Claudia McNeil), and Best Direction of a Play (Lloyd Richards).
Over the years, “A Raisin in the Sun” has maintained its popularity and has helped catalyze a discussion of race in the United States by drawing attention to the tensions and anxieties related to neighborhood integration. The play has seen numerous stagings, the most recent being the Tony Award-nominated 2004 Broadway revival with Sean Combs, Phylicia Rashad and Audra Mcdonald as headliners.
In point of fact, Hansberry’s family also fought against housing discrimination that prevented them from moving into a white neighborhood. In her memoir, “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black,” Hansberry remembers living in a “hellishly hostile ‘white neighborhood’” and facing angry white mobs that “spat at, cursed, and pummeled” them as they walked to and from school. The case occurred nearly thirty years before the Fair Housing Act, which forbade housing discrimination, was passed as part of the Civil Rights Act in 1968.
Although the play does not depict what occurs after the Youngers leave their run-down Southside apartment, two playwrights have since taken up the story to imagine what happens next. In 2010, Bruce Norris, a white playwright, wrote Clybourne Park, which features the white family who sells the house to the Youngers. Kwame Kwei-Armah’s 2013 play Beneatha’s Place imagines Beneatha’s journey as she travels with Asagai to Nigeria and, instead of becoming a medical doctor, becomes an academic at a prominent university in California.
Hansberry, who was the first black playwright and only the fifth woman to win the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award, was also the youngest dramatist to achieve the honor. Although she published many other writings, "A Raisin in the Sun" was her only major play (she died of pancreatic cancer five years after it premiered), Hansberry left a powerful legacy as a civil rights advocate and served as the inspiration for Nina Simone’s 1969 song “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black.”
SOUTH COAST REPERTORY, in their 60th Season & 549th Production, Presents, A RAISON IN THE SUN, by LORRAINE HANSBERRY; Directed by KHANISHA FOSTER; Scenic Design by JOSAFATH REYNOSO; Costume Design by WENDELL C. CARMICHAEL; Wig, Hair & Makeup by ANA LUISA ACOSTA; Lighting Design by LONNIE RAFAEL ALCARAZ; Sound Design by M. GLENN SCHUSTER; Fight & Intimacy Consultant SASHA NICOLLE SMITH; Production Stage Manager DARLENE MIYAKAWA.
STARRING: C.J. LINDSEY; ASHEMBAGA (ASHE) JAAFARU; VERALYN JONES; TIFFANY YVONNE COX; JUNIOR NYONG’O; TRISTAN TURNER; DAVID NEVELL; NATHAN BROXTON; ERRON JAY. UNDERSTUDIES: MIKAYLA CONLEY; KACI HAMILTON; DERRICK A. KING; ZALEN DOCIARD KING.
A RAISIN IN THE SUN is being presented at SOUTH COAST REPERTORY from October 22—November 12, with Performances on Sundays at 2PM, Tuesdays through Sundays at 7:45PM, Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00PM. No 7:45 show on Sunday, November 5. Two hours, 40 min., plus one intermission. 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, CA 92626. For Ticket Reservations, see www.scr.org
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report