Wednesday, February 15, 2012

THEATRE REVIEW: "A Raisin in the Sun" at Moxie Theatre

A Ripe "Raisin"

Moxie Theatre’s powerful and poignant revival brings out the best in Hansberry’s revolutionary play

By Donnie Matsuda

In many ways, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun is a play ahead of its time.

With its beautifully nuanced and incredibly moving story, Raisin captivates with a lovingly detailed portrait of an African American family (the Youngers) as they struggle to make ends meet on the South Side of Chicago in the 1950s. With a commitment of spirit and some heartfelt humor, the play takes this small family dynamic and (thanks to the smart and sensitive writing of Hansberry) carves out some simply sublime characters that act and interact with each other in ways that are at times ordinary and at times awe-inspiring.

Even more than that, Raisin has the insight to rise above the quips and quibbles of a fractured family to provide some subtle social commentary and thematic timelessness that still resonates today. While the characters are utterly intriguing, it is the universality of the themes in Hansberry’s play - the shifting of values from one generation to the next, the emotional and financial strain that can alienate a husband and wife, the omnipresent tension of racism and classism, and the hope and devastation inherent in dreams deferred - that truly make it a pioneering piece of theatre.

The Younger Family in Moxie Theatre's "A Raisin in the Sun." (Top row): Yolanda Franklin and Mark Christopher Lawrence. (Bottom row): LaTahj Myers, Sylvia M'Lafi Thompson, and Kaja Dunn. Photo by Daren Scott.

A Raisin in the Sun was revolutionary in other ways, as well. When it premiered on Broadway in 1959, Hansberry became one of the youngest playwrights and the first African American playwright to be produced on Broadway. Not to mention the director of the production was the first African American director to have worked on the Great White Way. By being so ground-breaking, Hansberry’s play changed the face of American theatre forever and has endured as a classic period piece with a timeless appeal. Now being revived by Moxie Theatre with a committed, compelling cast and a dynamic director, the story of the Younger family is being told with a fresh and fully-realized staging.

Yolanda Franklin as Ruth Younger. Photo by Daren Scott.

The setting for the nearly three hour drama is a gritty, run-down Chicago apartment (a perfectly shabby yet snug set design by Sean Fanning) that is shared by the five members of the Younger family. We first meet the exasperated Ruth (a pert and pleasant Yolanda Franklin) as she tries to rouse her son, Travis (a no-nonsense LaTahj Myers) and her husband, Walter Lee (a dynamic Mark Christopher Lawrence) to get the family started on yet another grueling, mundane day. But today, there is reason to be hopeful, as the family’s matriarch Lena (a quietly arresting, tour-de-force turn by earthy Sylvia M’Lafi Thompson) is about to receive a check for $10,000 from the insurance company, following the death of her husband. This amount of money could be a game changer for any member of the Younger family: it could give Lena the chance to buy her dream home in the highly affluent (and exclusively white) community of Clybourne Park, it could give her son Walter Lee the chance to quit his dead end job and start his own liquor business, it could give her daughter-in-law Ruth the chance to raise her ever-expanding family in more dignified digs, or it could give her daughter Beneatha (a smart and sassy Kaja Dunn) the opportunity to go to medical school and become a doctor.

Sylvia M'Lafi Thompson and Mark Christopher Lawrence. Photo by Daren Scott.

These dreams may seem basic to some, but they are all that this family has going for them and it gives them both hope and heartbreak, which is gut-wrenching to watch. As each family member deals with expectation and disappointment in different ways, Hansberry’s brilliant blend of comedy and tragedy, united with its timeless themes, makes for a powerful evening of theatre.

The evening also includes some strong performances by a handful of supporting characters that come in and out of the Younger household. There is Beneatha’s Nigerian friend Asagai (a winning Laurence Brown) who gets her in touch with her African roots, an uptight and wealthy suitor (a suave Dail Desmond Richard) who turns out to be an arrogant bore, and a painfully uncomfortable member of the Clybourne Park “welcoming committee” (a flustered Kent Weingardt). When combined with the stellar performances of the five member Younger family, the triumphs and tragedies inherent in the play come to life in a way that is as palpable as it is affecting.

With this poignant production, it is easy to see why director Delicia Turner Sonnenberg is in such high demand these days. She, along with assistant directors Ashley McGuire ZeMans and Patrick Kelly, manages to mine Hansberry’s play for all its worth, presenting an authentic staging that showcases both the heart and pathos of the piece.

Laurence Brown and Kaja Dunn. Photo by Daren Scott.

With time, some classic stage works become dated period pieces forever stuck in an otherworldly era. Others, like A Raisin in the Sun, remain staples of the American literary cannon and seem to become more relevant as the years (and decades) pass by.

Moxie Theatre’s moving and masterful revival proves that now is a good time as any to revive an American theatre classic. With an arresting cast and universal themes, it is a story that is as timeless as it is timely.

Things to know before you go: A Raisin in the Sun plays at Moxie Theatre through March 4th, 2012. Running time is 2 hours and 40 minutes with a 15 minute intermission. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8pm, and Sundays at 2pm. For more information or to purchase tickets, call (858) 598-7620 or visit www.moxietheatre.com.

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