Above: Marissa Wolf, director of new works at Kansas City Repertory Theatre, and Chip Miller, assistant director, are co-directing the Rep’s spring production of “A Raisin in the Sun.”
(Photo by Jim Barcus)

KC Rep revisits “A Raisin in the Sun”…

“A Raisin in the Sun” is regarded as a major American play that not only reflects the era in which it was created — the 1950s — but continues to resonate for its insight into humanity in general and race in particular. The signature work of playwright Lorraine Hansberry, the tale of the Younger family and its transition from an uncomfortable life in the city to an uncertain one in the suburbs has become iconic.

A new production of the play, presented by Kansas City Repertory Theatre, comes at a time when race relations in the United States are at once better and worse than ever. The two-term presidency of Barack Obama signaled that America had made great strides in the direction of tolerance and compassion. Yet the man elected as his successor, Donald J. Trump, owes his victory at least in part to a persistent and seemingly ineradicable strain of bigotry in the body politic.

Add to that the proliferation of police violence against African-Americans and the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, and it’s not surprising that KC Rep has chosen to revisit the play, which it last staged in 2006. The current production is co-directed by Marissa Wolf, director of new works and artistic associate with the theater company, and Chip Miller, assistant artistic director.

“(The play) still feels like a very timely piece. It speaks to what’s going on in this nation right now.”

Chip Miller, assistant artistic director, KC Rep

In planning for its 2016-17 season, Miller said, KC Rep opted to include “Raisin” because the play “still feels like a very timely piece. It speaks to what’s going on in this nation right now.”

Wolf called the play “one of the seminal pieces in the 20th-century theater movement.

“For me, there’s something about the hunger that drives it forward. Each character’s need is not only deeply relatable but also very dramatic. And so much of the language is really muscular and profound. And yet it maintains a sense of the everyday.”

Set in a cramped Chicago apartment, “A Raisin in the Sun” is largely the story of two people: Walter Lee Younger, a limousine driver who dreams of owning a liquor store, and his mother Lena (aka Mama), who is head of the family — and whose authority he resents. Also living in the apartment are Walter’s wife Ruth, son Travis and sister Beneatha, who aspires to be a doctor. Beneatha has two radically different suitors: the culturally progressive Joseph Asagai, who hails from Africa, and the unapologetically bourgeois George Murchison.

As the play begins, the father of Walter and Beneatha has recently died and his bereft widow Lena awaits a life insurance check for $10,000. The family is astonished when she makes a down payment on a house in a white suburb — and saddened when Walter, after a bad financial decision, seems willing to take money from a neighborhood association that doesn’t want the Youngers for neighbors.

When it debuted on March 11, 1959 at New York’s Ethel Barrymore Theater, “A Raisin in the Sun” (which takes its name from a line in a Langston Hughes poem), was the first play by an African-American woman to be produced on Broadway, and the first with a black director (Lloyd Richards). It was also an early showcase for the great Sidney Poitier, who portrayed Walter opposite Ruby Dee as Ruth, Claudia McNeil as Lena and Diana Sands as Beneatha.

Arguably, the longevity of “A Raisin in the Sun” owes as much to Hansberry’s artistic approach as to its continuing social relevance. Although its subject was fresh for Broadway, its style was very much in the tradition of the “well-made” play as exemplified by the works of Chekhov and Ibsen. Indeed, Hansberry displayed a mastery of her art form that belied her youth.

Author and playwright Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965) was 27 years old when she began writing “A Raisin in the Sun.”

“Something that really spoke to us,” Miller said, “is that the play premiered on Broadway when Lorraine Hansberry was 29. She began writing it when she was 27.

“One thing that was important for us was, how do we get back to this young woman who was writing about her life, and about what she was seeing in the world?”

The latest KC Rep production of “Raisin” also reflects the backgrounds of its co-directors, Wolf said.

“What we’ve hooked into is that Chip is a young black man, and I am a white woman,” she said. “And so, there’s a way in which we both bring a different kind of perspective that’s really useful.
“Certainly, it’s important to have a black director, for engaging in conversation and thinking about lived experience. But then as a woman, I feel that this play has a lot to do with mothers and sons.”

Collaborating on the play has also pointed up the ways in which a play can be subject to different interpretations, Miller said.

“It never feels like we’re disagreeing,” he said. “It’s been more about, ‘Oh my God, you just opened my eyes to that line of text that I never heard in that way, because that’s just not the way that I’m going to read the play.’

“And that’s been super helpful — to have a partner in this who’s as deeply engaged in the work as I am. For us, it’s about what’s honest: What is the text telling us?”

Miller and Wolf said they couldn’t be more pleased with the casting of “Raisin,” particularly the key roles of Walter and Lena.

Stepping into Walter’s shoes is Tosin Morohunfola, who hails from Kansas City but has achieved success on the Chicago stage.

“He’s an actor that we’ve wanted to work with at the Rep for quite a while,” Miller said. Morohunfola has appeared on television series including “Chicago Med,” “Chicago Fire” and “Empire.”

The obvious way to play Walter is to focus on the character’s anger. But Wolf said that Morohunfola’s interpretation of the role is intriguingly original, rooted in “an incredible hunger for life, a deep wellspring of emotion, and an urgency in terms of needing to be heard, and needing to be seen.”

She said she was also “blown away” by the audition of Greta Oglesby, who was Phylicia Rashad’s understudy for the role of Lena on Broadway in 2004.

“She’s an amazing actress out of Chicago,” Wolf said, noting that she was impressed with Oglesby’s take on the character as “smart, buoyant and hardworking.”

The play’s ending is often viewed as optimistic, with the Youngers packing up their belongings and leaving the apartment for their new home. But there’s almost certain to be trouble not long after the curtain falls.

“They’re going into battle in a way,” Wolf said. “We definitely have a looming sense of what’s to come.”

Unquestionably, “A Raisin in the Sun” is a work for the ages — specific in its details yet universal in its impact.

“In many ways, it’s just about the American experience,” Miller said. “We all grieve, we move on, we all want to move forward, we all have dreams. And I think that is what has kept this play around, not to mention that it is one of the best-written plays of all time.”

“A Raisin in the Sun” runs from March 24 through April 16 at Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s Spencer Theatre, 4949 Cherry St. Tickets are $25-$67; students/children, $20. For more information, 816-235-2700 or kcrep.org

Calvin Wilson

Calvin Wilson is an arts writer at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He is also host and creator of the jazz program, “Somethin’ Else,” on 107.3 FM and 96.3 HD2 in St. Louis.

Leave a Reply