BWW Review: Nashville Rep's Passionate RAISIN IN THE SUN
Jackie Welch, Tamiko Robinson Steele and Lauren Frances Jones together onstage are like the royalty of Nashville theater: three formidable actresses who bring a wealth of experience to any role they play as individuals. Yet, collectively, the three women are more than mere forces of nature, they are nature itself, their remarkable talents combining to create a theatrical experience that will long be remembered, venerated and discussed among those people fortunate enough to see them in Nashville Repertory Theatre's stunning and passionate production of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun.
Directed with passion and heartfelt emotion by Rene D. Copeland, Nashville Rep's producing artistic director, and starring NFL legend/Broadway veteran and First Night Award winning actor Eddie George in the role of Walter Lee Younger, this production of A Raisin in the Sun isn't approached as an aging work of art in some museum of the theater. Rather, Copeland crafts a production that breathes new vitality into Hansberry's classic work, revealing it as an organic - still evolving and as timely as ever - drama which still challenges its audiences to examine the facts and failings of their own lives in the communities in which they live.
Hansberry's affection for the Youngers is obvious and reverberates throughout her sharply written dialogue - and her incisive consideration of the family's efforts to pursue its own version of the American dream, amid the changing racial climate of post-World War II America, closely mirrors events that her own family endured prior to the war and resulted in a lawsuit that found its way to the Supreme Court. Hansberry's vividly created, multi-dimensional characters are made of flesh and blood, individuals to whom you find yourself emotionally drawn. In fact, if you find yourself unmoved by events taking place onstage, you must be heartless, so completely involving is Hansberry's script and so riveting are the performances on display in Copeland's exquisitely crafted revival.
Hansberry's script - and the subsequent success of the play on Broadway (including a 2004 revival that starred Sean Combs, Audra McDonald, Sanaa Lathan and Phylicia Rashad and a 2014 revival that featured Denzel Washington, Sophie Okonedo, LaTanya Richardson Jackson and Anika Noni Rose) and in films - has rendered it an American classic, often revered and sometimes even vilified (George C. Wolfe's The Colored Museum contains a vignette called "The Last Mama-on-the-Couch Play," that almost certainly satirizes Hansberry's work).
Left to consider what might have been, what could possibly be and our role in whatever transpires, audiences witnessing the superb performance of A Raisin in the Sun will have much to talk about after the show's final curtain has figuratively rung down. The emotions expressed and the life lessons learned throughout Hansberry's three-act play (here presented in two acts, with one intermission) are certain to haunt your thoughts in the days that follow.
With George headlining the production - he's been considered a Nashville treasure since first coming here as a Tennessee Titan, gaining even more notoriety as his role as a community activist and arts advocate has grown in his post-football years - audiences are surely to be drawn to the Andrew Johnson Theatre at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center, the site of his previous stage achievement in The Whipping Man just two years previous. His performance in A Raisin in the Sun, notable for his no-holds-barred, courageous approach to his character (his Walter Lee is broad shouldered and hulking, yet sensitive and brooding), is yet another estimable addition to his burgeoning resume, but he wisely resists the urge to commandeer the stage to himself, instead allowing his trio of co-stars to share the spotlight they so richly deserve.
Welch, playing Younger family matriarch Lena, delivers a master class for actors, audiences and critics alike with her scintillating performance. Playing Lena from her own expansive heart, Welch makes her all the more accessible with her heartfelt, affecting portrayal, ensuring that the story told in Hansberry's play is sure to command attention. Seemingly effortless, Welch plays a loving mother who is filled with compassion for those around her, longing for a sense of security and a legacy that only having a place to call home can provide. Her performance is multi-dimensional, filled with nuance and shading that might be considered overly theatrical if attempted by someone with less experience: She can break your heart at one moment, yet just as easily she can fill your soul with light when she graces you with one of her benevolent smiles that somehow wraps you, as if in a hug, while she stands on a beautifully appointed and expressively illuminated stage (once again, Gary C. Hoff's set and Phillip Franck's lighting designs provide the perfect backdrop for a Nashville Rep retelling of an American stage classic).
Clearly, Welch's luminous portrayal of Lena Younger is the opportunity to see a gifted actress at the very zenith of her career, proof for those who haven't had the chance to see her onstage until now that she's truly the stuff of local theatrical legend.
Similarly, Tamiko Robinson Steele - perhaps the most versatile, skilled woman to be found on local stages today - gives a performance that towers above and beyond anything she's done before. And make no mistake about it, Robinson Steele has given startling performances throughout her career, which makes my description of her eminently credible and honest. But, as Ruth Younger, she transcends anything she's done before, transforming herself into a believable woman of the late 1950s, caught up in a changing world that she's ill-equipped to handle, but manages to do so with equal parts grace and grit. Her scenes with Welch overflow with a poignancy that tugs at the human heart, as she expresses so vividly her worries and concerns, somehow showing the depths of Ruth's despair that is equaled by the love and devotion she feels for Walter Lee and their young son, Travis (played with charm and confidence by Russell Jacquese Acklin Jr., who alternates in the role with Zachariah Brown).
Welch's onstage chemistry with George makes certain their scenes together are intensely felt and beautifully played, their characters' life stories playing out with commitment and an authenticity that makes those scenes fairly electric.
As Lena's daughter Beneatha, Jones plays the young woman - who finds herself on the brink of adulthood at a challenging time in American history in which African-Americans were struggling to throw off the chains of a past that had long held them back - with a perfect blend of sometimes childish arrogance coupled with a passionate desire for a life different from that of five generations of Youngers in America. Petulant and capricious, Jones' Bennie is, by turns, thoughtful and focused, effectively showing us a young woman caught up in the turmoil of the times, eagerly responding to the changing attitudes around her, while acquiescing to the demands and desires of her beloved family.
Jones' interactions with the two young men vying for Beneatha's affection - the rich and highbrow George Murchison, played with just enough smarmy charm by the excellent James Rudolph, and the handsome and Nigerian-born intellectual who challenges her to seek more from her life Joseph Asagai, played with a complete lack of guile by the pitch-perfect Brandon Hirsch - provide a lighter, though still just as compelling, counterpoint to the deeper, more serious issues confronted by the Younger family in their efforts to share in the American dream.
Matthew Carlton, one of Nashville's most accomplished stage artists (his career is one to be coveted, admired and aspired to by anyone, anywhere), proves the ideal personification of white privilege, playing the role of Karl Lindner, the representative of the Clybourne Park neighborhood association, charged with the task of convincing the Youngers to help preserve the sanctity of the previously all-white enclavE. Carlton looks and plays the part convincingly, which is testament to his immense talent.
As with most Nashville Rep production, A Raisin in the Sun is exceptionally designed: Hoff's depiction of the Younger apartment in a South Chicago tenement gives a genuine sense of "you are there" which helps the audience immerse themselves in the story, while Franck's lighting is evocative and soul-stirring in its own way. TrisH Clark's costumes are gorgeous recreations of period clothing, which ensures each character is all the more accessible and clearly defined. And Evelyn Thornhill's eye for detail is evident through her carefully curated collection of stage properties which give a rich sense of time and place to the production.
If your exposure to A Raisin in the Sun comes primarily from a high school English class, you owe it to yourself to experience the power of the piece as presented live onstage. Copeland's vision for the piece is sure to provoke thought and facilitate conversation about the continued inequities and racism that still abounds in our desire to achieve the American dream.
A Raisin in the Sun. By Lorraine Hansberry. Directed by Rene D. Copeland. Presented by Nashville Repertory Theatre at TPAC's AnDrew Johnson Theatre, Nashville. Running through April 22. For details, go to www.nashvillerep.org. Running time: 3 hours (with one 15-minute intermission).