BWW Review: A RAISIN IN THE SUN at Kansas City Repertory Theatre
In 1959, "Raisin In The Sun" was a revelation of a play. The struggle for civil rights was building up a head of steam. Neighborhood resistance to the integration of African-American families into previously all white communities was approaching a defining moment. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was the President of the then new Southern Christian Leadership Conference and near an apex of his ministry.
Friday evening, Kansas City Repertory Theatre opened its new and excellent production of "A Raisin In The Sun" at the Spencer Theatre of the James C. Olson Performing Arts Complex on the UMKC campus.
"Raisin In The Sun" is the story of the Youngers, a multi-generational African American family, living in Chicago's Washington Park during the Great Depression. Twenty-nine year old playwright Lorraine Hansberry was the youngest and first African American writer to open a play on Broadway up until that time. Hansberry reached back into her own family history to access an episode many might choose to forget. Hansberry's own family was a victim of unforgiveable forced segregation. Bomb threats and real bombs were not uncommon. In 1940, the Hansberrys were plaintiffs in a lawsuit that challenged the validity of restrictive neighborhood covenants and which ended up in the U.S. Supreme Court.
The multi-generational Youngers of "A Raisin In The Sun" are led by Matriarch Lena (Greta Oglesby). Lena's two children Walter Lee (Tosin Morohunfola), his wife Ruth (Lanise Antoine Shelley), his eleven year old son Travis (Reonans Nelsons II), and Walter Lee's twenty year old sister, medical student Beneatha (BriAnna Woods) all live in a run down two bedroom apartment that would be difficult for any six people regardless of ethnicity. The genius of "Raisin" is the playwright's ability to paint these characters in three dimensions and to the height of their individual humanity.
Lena's husband has died and the proceeds of a $10,000.00 life insurance policy are about to be delivered. Each family sub-unit has an agenda about what to do with the money. Walter Lee wants to enter into a partnership with friends to purchase a liquor store. Ruth is a calming influence but supports her husband's dream without admitting it directly to him. Lena is unsure. She is firm in her belief that part of the windfall payment will go to pay for Beneatha's medical education. These differences of opinion lead to conflict and Walter Lee does not react well.
Momma Lena disappears to consider. It turns out Lena also has an unspoken dream. She uses $3500.00 of the insurance proceeds to buy the family a home in an all-white neighborhood. She has purchased the home not for the purpose of making a statement, but in the interest buying the best home she can afford.
Walter Lee explains his desire for a business. He wants the American Dream. He wants to provide for his family and his son. He wants an independent life where his family is unforced to service those who have more. Lena relents. She trusts Walter Lee with the remainder of the money. He is to create a tuition fund for his sister and an operating fund for himself and Ruth. But Walter Lee invests the entire sum into his proposed business venture. Walter Lee's partner turns out to be a thief and the family's entire grubstake disappears.
The family reconciles itself to the loss and prepares to move to their new home until a representative of the new neighborhood welcoming committee visits. Mr. Lindner (Gary Neal Johnson) explains that the committee is dedicated to maintaining the ethnic integrity of the new neighborhood. They will happily buy back the Younger's new home at a substantial profit to the Youngers. It is all quite civilized except for Mr. Lindner's repeated use to the words "you people." As his purpose becomes clear, Mr. Lindner is politely shown the door.
Walter Lee considers and takes the cynical view. He realizes he can recoup the lost money by reselling the new house to Mr. Lindner's group. He is about to do so when Lena's humanity brings him to his senses. He rejects the offer made in favor of the family's dignity. They will be good neighbors and live in the home that is his Mother's dream.
Significant subplots have been ignored in this explanation. There is more to see. Directors Marissa Wolf and Chip Miller have assembled a stellar cast of very good performers. The directors have enhanced every shred of humanity and the universality of the story. These people are black, but at different points in American history they could just as easily be Irish, or Italians, or Jews, or of Middle Eastern origin.
Greta Oglesby as Lena is a very talented actor. She effortlessly reminds us of the values espoused by our own grandmothers regardless of ethnicity. The scope of her previous work is broad and significant.
"Raisin In The Sun" spotlights significant and serious conflicts, but the playwright has crafted a story that offers a lot to smile about and even laugh out loud. It makes its points about civil rights and the African American experience without excluding people from other experiences. "Raisin" is a long play that somehow never loses the attention of its audience.
There is much to admire in the words of Lorraine Hansberry. It is a shame that we did not enjoy the privilege of hearing theM. Lorraine grew up in the house that Lena bought. She lived to enjoy the success of her play and the 1961 film that followed. Unfortunately, she died of pancreatic cancer at age 34. The Civil Rights Act of 1968 (three years later) outlawed the behaviors that led to her Father's 1940 lawsuit and this play.
Kansas City Repertory Theater's production of "Raisin in the Sun" continues at the Spencer Theatre through April 16. Through arrangements with Sprint and other funding agencies, over 10,000 school age young people will see this production in addition to adult audiences. Tickets to regular performances are available on the KC Rep website www.kcrep.org or by telephone at 816-235-2700.
Photo courtesy of Kansas City Repertory Theatre