Thanks to a gallery of stunning performances by both local and out-of-town actors, Kansas City Repertory Theatre delivers an exceptional production of Lorraine Hansberry’s 1950s drama, “A Raisin in the Sun.” Audiences will enjoy acting of the highest order from inspired performers.
“A Raisin in the Sun” is considered a classic, and rightly so, thanks to its richly textured depiction of a specific time and place populated by vivid, complex characters. Present-day audiences tend to view mid-20th century classics from a comfortable distance and through a sepia-toned lens, comforting themselves with the the notion that society has progressed beyond these thorny political and social issues.
In 1959, when “A Raisin in the Sun” premiered on Broadway, it reflected contemporary reality. This is the story of an African-American family living in a crowded apartment in Chicago’s “Black Belt.” They roll the dice by buying a house in a white neighborhood. But progress is elusive. In this play we see here-and-now relevance as well as a window into the Hansberry family’s direct experience.
After all, 1959 was the year in which the U.S. Civil Rights Commission declared Chicago “”the most residentially segregated large city in America.” But have things really changed that much? At a time when racists feel safe to reveal their bias, the play’s continuing pertinence is a sad commentary.
Co-directors Chip Miller and Marissa Wolf sweep aside any segregation-era cobwebs and lend the play immediacy through inspired casting and focusing on the smallest character details.
At the play’s outset the Youngers are waiting for the arrival of a $10,000 check, life insurance money due matriarch Lena Younger (Greta Oglesby) after her husband’s death. The family includes her son, Walter Lee Younger (Tosin Morohunfola) and his wife Ruth (Lanise Antoine Shelley), as well as their son Travis (played at alternating performances by Carwin Cooper and Reonans Nelson II). Sharing the living quarters is Walter’s younger sister, Beneatha Younger (Brianna Woods).
The question facing the Youngers is simple: What will they do with the money? The answer isn’t so simple. Walter, tired of working as a chauffeur and watching his wife work as a domestic, wants to use some of it to invest in a liquor store. Lena wants to set aside part of it so that Beneatha, who wants to be a doctor, can go to medical school. Lena settles the issue by buying a house in a white neighborhood, motivated by her desire to see the family in a place where sunlight and fresh air are a normal part of living.
Walter, who dreams of being a wheeler-dealer, is angered by his mother’s decision until she hands him the balance of the money to manage as the head of the family. His investment dreams, however, are contingent on thoroughly unreliable business partners and he is ultimately humiliated by his bad decisions. Complicating the picture even more is a visit from a representative of the white neighborhood (Gary Neal Johnson), who offers to buy the Youngers’ new house on generous terms while arguing that the neighborhood’s reluctance to welcome the family isn’t really about racism at all. No, it’s just the instinct of people to “be with their own kind.”
The first act runs 90 minutes and Act 2 consumes about an hour. So this is a serious night at the theater. That’s because Hansberry doesn’t give any of these complicated relationships short shrift. In a key subplot, Beneatha has attracted two suitors — George Murchison (Donovan Woods), who comes from a wealthy African-American family, and Joseph Asagai, a Nigerian studying in Chicago. The play thereby asks: Is it better to assimilate into white-majority American culture (as George thinks he has) or connect with one’s African roots?
The performances are pitch-perfect. Oglesby commands with the stage with unforced authority as Lena, who embodies universal hopes and dreams of a better life. Morohunfola, who began his career in Kansas City before relocating to Chicago, is magnificent as Walter, a character that undergoes more wrenching changes than any other in the play. Morohunfola has always stood out as an exceptional actor, but I’d never seen him tackle a role as challenging as Walter. He’s at the top of his game.
Shelley, as Ruth, balances the character’s world-weariness with an often acerbic point of view, generating some of the biggest deserved laughs in the show. (Yes, this is a serious drama, but the actors tap into a strain of humor that runs through Hansberry’s script). Brianna Woods is a convincing mix of cynicism, idealism and hope as Beneatha. Donovan Woods and Burns turn in impressive, detailed performances in their key supporting roles. Nedra Dixon makes a broadly comic appearances as a nosy upstairs neighbor. The fine Walter Coppage turns in a nicely crafted, brief performance as one of Walter’s hapless business partners. And Johnson delivers as the nervous Karl Linder, the white neighborhood representative.
The design team — Antje Ellerman (sets), Jessica Jahn (costumes), Donna Ruzika (lighting) and Justin Ellington (sound) — make major contributions to a production that shimmers with professionalism.
Ultimately, though, the production’s success comes down to the actors. Audiences, whether in Kansas City or elsewhere, rarely see this level of commitment. The show packs a punch and compels you to think about ethics, morality, equality and the fragile concept of hope.
“A Raisin in the Sun” runs through April 16 at the Spencer Theatre in the Carlson Performing Arts Center on the UMKC campus. Call 816-235-2700 or go to www.kcrep.org.