BWW Review: Lyric Arts' Outstanding A RAISIN IN THE SUN Honors Deferred American Dreams
Poet Langston Hughes questions in 1951 through his poem "Harlem;" What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?" The legendary poem inspired Lorraine Hansbury to write the award winning drama A Raisin in the Sun eight years later. In 1959, Hansberry became the first African American women to have her play produced at New York's Barrymore Broadway Theater in an era when women in general, regardless of ethnicity, were published. Opening in '59 with a primarily African American cast, the play heralded a dramatic change for theater audience in years to come. At Anoka's Main Stage Theater, Lyric Arts presents an outstanding revised thirteenth anniversary production of the play directed by Austene Van, which features a stellar cast and two tiered set designed by Peter Lerohl with lighting designed by Matt McNabb.
In the lives of both Hansberry and Hughes, the Negro or African American experience during the 1950's included segregation in education, employment, housing and transportation. Rosa Parks defied the segregation on a bus ride in 1955, and then schools were integrated per the United States Supreme Court with their dramatic decision in the 1954 Brown vs The Board of Education. Hansberry's script also predestines the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960's which spoke to dreams deferred for African Americans through raging protests for change.
Hansberry writes the Younger family's story when they receive a life insurance check for $10,000 when the patriarch of the family dies. Living in a dreary South Chicago neighborhood,, the remaining members of the Younger family vie for the right to spend the insurance money on their personal dreams. His wife, Lena, dreams of a garden and home filled with sunshine. His son, Walter Lee, dreams of owning his own business instead of driving a limousine for a "white" boss. His daughter Beneatha dreams of becoming a doctor after graduation from the university, although her two suitors ask for her hand in marriage as is expected of a woman in the '50's. Walter Lee's wife, Ruth, struggles with a new baby on the way when the family harbors concerns providing for just one son, Travis.
These conflicting dreams of the Younger family described by Hansberry might coincide with numerous inspirations considered by all Americans in 2019-sixty years later-Whether they could be college students struggling with student debt and finding suitable employment, LGBTQ rights to work and be employed without discrimination or immigrants searching for a home and a visa, even citizenship, for their new American dream.
While racism continually deterred the African American's dream in 1959, Lena decides to purchase a house in a "white" neighborhood-this legacy follows the country into the 2019 landscape with black, brown and people of colored skins. At Lyric Arts' opening weekend, a trifecta of independent, powerful women characters, along with a trio of men, fight for their dreams and family.
As the matriarch Ruth, the insurance check is technically written to her. Actor Charla Marie Bailey believes in Ruth's family with a palatable stage love and tenacity, that inspires her daughter in law's courage to be who she needs to be while working during the day in a "white' household. Dana Lee Thompson offers vulnerability on stage to fight for Ruth's marriage, her job and a home. As the college student Beneatha, Camrin King demonstrates a woman's right to an education, for her in the male dominated medical profession. That insurance check might pay part of her schooling. King devotes her energy, humor and sincerity to this role, giving credence to believing a university education promoted high aspirations for any woman in that era-black or white.
The male actors at Lyric Arts prove equally compelling. Doc Woods plays Walter Lee, who showcases a microcosm of a man's dilemmas to support his family while maintaining his dignity and any personal goals. His son Travis, played by an actor's son Leonard Searcy, Jr., does a fine job managing these adults in his life. As Beneatha's two suitors, the wealthy George, Yinka Ayinde, and her Nigerian idealist boyfriend Asagai, the regal Leonard Searcy, the two project divergent viewpoints of marriage and Beneatha's future. This 'wisdom' from the 1950's challenges the audience with poignant perspectives in 2019 when contemporary gender roles suffer further confusion in today's society.
Director Van constructs a well paced drama, which moves swiftly and holds the audience's attention through the two plus hour show with one intermission. Yet, Van perfectly lingers over critical dialogue and scenes to evoke the audience's emotions, for the past and also today. When the Youngers confront a huge monetary payment bribing them to stay in their current neighborhood or search for another home, their dream may be destroyed forever. What does a family decide when they wish to go where they clearly are unwanted? What do people do today when faced with these exact dilemmas? Do they defer their American dream and hope for a brighter year later?
Hughes' poem ends in an explosion with the last line-Or does it (a dream deferred) just explode-similar to the explosive events that rocked America in the 1960's, including the assassination of prominent leaders in their respective communities. How will immigration end in the 21st century? How will the LGBTQ rights be enforced after 2019? These concerns haunt the country around every corner, in familiar neighborhoods, and include advancing further equality for African Americans and all women as American forges ahead.
While the Lyric Arts technical team admirably supports this marvelous cast the audience waits expectantly for the final minutes to unfold. When Lena proclaims: "I taught you to love,,,There is always something left to love. If you ain't learned that, then you ain't learned nothing." The Youngers decide to love each other when their hopes crashed for each one of them.
Audiences will ponder their own dreams-those deferred and those on hold, waiting, for the right moment to appear in their lives. Hansberry and Hughes wrote for specific and urgent racial prejudices or social issues a half century ago. Yet, the play becomes an absolutely must see for Twin Cities' audiences today. How could this growing theater company Lyric Arts realize the profound resonance of this play in their 2019 season? Somewhat akin to how might might these two literary giants ever comprehend, how could they imagine, what the phrase A Raisin in the Sun might foretell sixty years into the future.
Lyric Arts presents Loraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun at Anoka's Main Stage Theater through June 16. For further information on the upcoming season, or tickets to the performance, please visit: www.lyricarts.org.