The first time college-student-me saw Lorraine Hansberry’s Raisin In The Sun, I didn’t like it. It made me sad and uncomfortable in ways that I preferred not to think about. When the invitation came to see Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater’s revival of the American-dream-deferred workhorse play, I hesitated. I’m glad I went. Twenty years of life later, my experience of the Youngers’ struggle resonated entirely differently, leaving me feeling hopeful rather than hopeless.
The plot of Hansberry’s play can be summed up by the title’s inspiration, Langston Hughes’s poem Harlem (A Dream Deferred).
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
A Raisin in the Sun portrays a few weeks in the life of the Youngers, a 1950s African-American family poised to claw their way out of the South Chicago slums with a $10,000 insurance payout following the death of Papa Younger. Matriarch Lena Younger attains the dream – purchasing a house in the all-white Clybourne Park neighborhood – but the characters’ own brokenness, coupled with hostile bigotry, yields them no relief from their struggles. Hansberry’s timeless script mines the evergreen fonts of hope, dreams, blind ambition, family strife, racial prejudice, and our inability to get out of our own way. And yet…and yet…older me saw a glimmer of hope. Even as his dreams crash around him, brooding, disaffected son Walter Lee (Will Cobbs) wrenches a sense of identity from the yaw of despair. Even as security is wrench from her fingers, flighty, seeking daughter Beneatha (Joy Jones) still has sparkling eyes on future horizons. Determination and dreams persist.
The standout performance is hands down delivered by Lizan Mitchell, as the iron-willed, stout-hearted Lena Younger. Lena juggles the literal need to find a better home for her family with the metaphorical need to help her children construct an internal sense of place. Mitchel manages to convey the past, pain, pride, and perturbation of sixth generation Black-American Lena with a slight shift in posture or an exhale. Nothing short of remarkable. Also impressive is Bueka Uwemedimo, infusing Beneatha’s Nigerian suitor Joseph Asagai with a passion that offers relief, and perspective, to the family’s calamities.
Director Tazewell Thompson blends humor, fierceness, and restraint to render the oft retread work both fresh and relevant. Donald Eastman’s set transports you to a cramped, infested apartment, evoking the suffocating nature of poverty . . . no small feat for Fichlander’s theater-in-the-round stage. Costume Designer Harry Nadal nattily dresses the cast in classic 50s pieces, but truly pops with Beneatha’s vibrant African garb.
While the surface issues may have changed, the human drama of Raisin in the Sun still tangles our emotions. The Younger family’s moment of crisis remains pertinent in a country plagued with socio-economic stratification, poverty, and prejudice. Their struggles serve as a keen reminder that we all simply strive for a sense of stature and the best life we can manage.
Raisin In The Sun is playing at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater through May 7, 2017 (1101 Sixth St. SW, Washington DC 20024). Running time: two hours and 45 minutes, with one 15 minute intermission. For information or tickets call 202-488-3300 or click here.
Photo Credit: C. Stanley Photography