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Review: A RAISIN IN THE SUN at Chesapeake Shakespeare Company

Now playing at the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company theatre.

Review: A RAISIN IN THE SUN at Chesapeake Shakespeare Company Lorraine Hansberry's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, "A Raisin In The Sun", has had scores of outings on stages from Los Angeles to London and beyond. Through teledramas, musical versions, revival after revival, it has played host to some of the finest Black actors to ever tread the boards. And I'm venturing that the actors now playing at Baltimore's own Chesapeake Shakespeare Theatre can proudly add themselves to that roster of illustrious thespians. Because it is as fine a theatrical treatment of this oft-produced - though not oft enough - play as I've ever seen, and I've seen several.

When A Raisin In The Sun premiered on Broadway in 1959, with a stellar cast that included Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Claudia McNeil, Diana Sands, and a then 12-year old Glynn Thurman, it was the first time a Broadway show had been written by a Black woman and the first to be directed by a Black man. Its success was anything but guaranteed and acceptance was not unanimous, at least not on opening night. It took a while for the collective consciousness of the American theatre-going public to recognize that this was not merely a play with a Black writer, cast, and director. This was a landmark achievement in drama, with a script so rich in the human experience that it spoke to the largely white audience by holding up a mirror to their own prejudices and stereotypical impressions of what families like the Youngers lived through on a daily basis all across America.

Set in the Chicago of the 1950s, A Raisin in the Sun tells the story of the Younger family, with characters that today might be considered stock, but back then was the first introduction white people would have had to anything but the Steppen Fetchit's and Butterfly McQueens of the American stage. This was a play peopled with real characters, showing the lives of those people in the kitchen, running the elevators, working in the factories, chauffeuring the rich, cleaning up after the haves, and doing it in a way that made their story relatable to white audiences on a human level, even if their experiences might never come close to the circumstances in the play.

The play begins shortly after the death of the elder Walter Younger, father to Walter Lee, Jr., and his sister, Beneatha. Walter and his wife, Ruth, and their son, Travis, along with Beneatha, all share a too-small apartment in the Chicago ghetto with the family matriarch, the formidable Lena Younger. With the death of her husband, Lena now stands to receive a $10,000 insurance payout. Walter, a chauffeur, is so full of longing for a better life for himself and his family that he becomes consumed with a plan to invest in a liquor store, a plan to which Lena is vehemently opposed to. She puts a down payment on a house in a white neighborhood, and in an effort to show her son that she does trust him and his dreams (though not the liquor store idea) gives Walter the remaining $6500 to deposit for the family. Meanwhile, sister Beneatha, who is studying to become a doctor and is the voice of progress and feminism in the family, is balancing between two suitors, one a wealthy Black young man and the other an African native who is studying at the university with her. When Walter's plan for the money goes awry, it is a true test of the strength of the family and particularly of Lena's ability to guide them all through the most challenging of times and make what's left of their dreams come true. Ms. Lansberry chose to name the play based on a line of a poem by noted Black playwright, Langston Hughes, called "Harlem", or more usually, "A Dream Deferred". Mr. Hughes' lines are" What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?" Ms. Hansberry sought to offer an answer to what happens to our dreams when they are deferred in such a way that the very nature of our relationships with our families and to ourselves is called into question.

Director Reggie Phoenix has added back some content that was largely left out of the 1961 film, all to the better. Mr. Phoenix captures the texture of the times and has done an outstanding job casting the production. Keeping the emotional temperature of the piece of a low boil, much like life, shows he knows how to steer this course with professional aplomb. And when it's time to heat up a scene, he does so with great control.

Chesapeake Shakespeare Company is well known for its tastefully understated set designs that complement the beautiful space of the theatre. Designer Timothy Jones does a terrific job with this one, depicting the interior and the exterior of the tenement building both with the soaring back wall and the laundry lines hanging overhead, the apartment furniture, and especially the kitchen. Great little touches like the pictures of the family hanging on the wall, the sad little plant, and the vintage radio make for a totally immersive and believable set. Costume Designer Sharlene Clinton does a fine job with period-perfect clothing and the lighting design by James Jackson nicely illuminates both actors and atmosphere.

I could write pages and pages about everyone's acting ability on that stage. In a true testament that affirms the cliché, 'there are no small parts, only small actors', Dominick Gladden is anything but small and actually made me cry with the depths of his despair at his part in the tragedy that befalls the family, in a scene that can't be more than three minutes or so long. Zach Brewster-Geisz captures the essence of the despicable "I'm your friend only trying to save you from the heartache of being where you don't belong" racist. Young Alex Jones is all elbows and knees and adorable adolescence. Lloyd Ekpe as the African boyfriend, Joseph Asagai, does well with a steady accent that, while I can't testify as to its authenticity, nonetheless served the character well. Quincy Vicks was suitably cast as the full-of-himself suitor to Beneatha, George Murchison. He was so good at it that I wanted to boo him, the smug so-and-so. And Niya Worthy's Beneatha is full of resolve to rise above her expected level of complacency at the sorry state of affairs of her family, her suitors, and 'Negroes' in general who have tried with no success to limit her dreams to what's been expected and accepted. Her desire to succeed is 100 percent in play and Ms. Worthy is terrific at conveying that.

Ruth Younger as played by Dawn Thomas Reidy is about half the black women in my family, so familiar and recognizable is her speech, her reactions, and her ability to run the gamut of emotions in the span of a couple of lines of dialogue. This is a consummate actor with great timing and the ability to stay in the moment, maintain her focus and draw you totally into her world.

It's difficult to write about Ms. Tamieka Chavis' performance. It was my Grandma, my Mom in her later years, my Aunt Mag, and my Aunt Mary - all of them on that stage. And in a presentation that goes beyond race, this lady will be a comforting memory to so many of the hugs, the wisdom, the support and love of our matriarchs. One of the things I found so riveting about Ms. Chavis was 'the look.' That wordless expression on the face of our Mothers or their comparable figures that, without uttering a word, let you know exactly where you messed up, and that you were about to be dealt with. Lawd, that took me back. This was acting at its most effortless finest. By a truly gifted actor.

But like most plays with a central character like Walter Lee Younger, the strength of the play largely rests on that actor's ability, though in this case the load is shared almost equally by Lena Younger. Gerrad Alex Taylor is an acting tour de force. After Walter loses the family's money and Beneatha thinks he's beneath all contempt and not worthy of love, Lena asks her young daughter, "Have you cried for that boy today? I don't mean for yourself and for the family 'cause we lost the money I mean for him what he been through and what?" I understood it, because I cried for him. That's how good Taylor is. He is one of those actors who makes it look so effortless at times. He is such a skilled professional that when he loses all control, I wasn't watching an actor. I was watching a man who had done the unimaginable and had to face himself. It was heart-rending and gut-wrenching. And it was superb.

It's exhausting that we still need to remind such large segments of the populations that plays like this are no less relevant today than they were 60 years ago. There are still groups of people who don't want Blacks in their neighborhoods. There are still men who will rip you off. There are still women who struggle to make their own dreams come true and still have to prove they are worth as much and frequently more than the men they have to deal with. And as long as there are, we need plays like A Raisin In The Sun to remind us. Companies like Chesapeake Shakespeare Company are recognizing that they can play a part in keeping these stories alive, sharing the dreams of a Black woman who wanted to tell this story because it's important for folks to know. Thanks to this production, a whole new audience will get to see some fine theatre based on an important message.

Photo Credit: Niyah Worthy as Benetha Younger, Gerrad Alex Taylor as Walter Lee Younger, and Dawn Thomas Reidy as Ruth Younger in "A Raisin In The Sun." Photo by by Jesús López.




From This Author - Timoth David Copney

Timoth David Copney has decades of experience in theatre. A classically trained dancer, he is a veteran of several Equity tours, a Canadian television series, and has worked on more than 50 productions... (read more about this author)


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...it is as fine a theatrical treatment of this oft-produced - not though not oft enough - play as I’ve ever seen