By Jennifer Johnson
A crowded, sunlight-deprived low-income apartment in Chicago’s South Side is the setting for Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play, A Raisin the the Sun in which a death gives the Youngers, a struggling African American family, conflicting dreams of a better life.
Directed by Janice V. Schreiber, and presented by the Magnolia Arts Center, this post-desegregation era drama is a window into the life of a family whose pursuit of the American dream is often delayed and shows their struggle to keep their dignity in an oppressive environment as they seek a better life for themselves.
After a bluesy saxophone plays honest yearning behind Toni Darden’s impassioned reading of Langston Hughes’ poem Harlem from his 1951 collection Montage of a Dream Deferred–setting the mood for turmoil and change–lights come up on a modest dwelling, cramped quarters for the five occupants. Tensions creep through the home as the family goes about their morning routine.
Ja’Maul Johnson brings a sweeping intensity and desperation to each monologue in his role as Walter Lee Younger, an idealist who blows most of the insurance money, including the portion to be set aside to help with his sister’s medical school expenses, on a business scam. Lacking the fire of her naively hopeful husband, Ruth Younger, played by Amy Staton who convincingly portrays the frustrations of a wife and mother, is care-worn and weary with her many burdens. Trying to see to the family’s day-to-day survival, she believes their best hope for a future will be found through working hard, even if at sometimes demeaning jobs.
Beneatha Younger, Walter’s sister, played with earnestness and honesty by Shaunda Moore, is a well-educated college student planning to become a doctor. Youthfully arrogant at times, her search for her identity leads her to hobbies considered frivolous by the family supporting her. Her two boyfriends–George Murchison (Austin Reed), a college student from a wealthy background who demeans her and her family making them feel less important, and Joseph Asagai (Nyke Singletary) a polite and respectful college student from Nigeria who encourages Beneatha to explore her roots–are the embodiment of the young woman’s internal struggle.
Westle Steuart, a promising young actor, makes his acting debut as Travis Younger, the young son of Walter Lee and Ruth. Steuart brings to the role with the sweetness of innocence of one only beginning to become aware of the world’s cruelties.
The final occupant of the house, the meddlesome matriarch Mama Lena Younger (JoAnn Williams), has a natural authority and wisdom that command attention–making even the audience sit straighter when she walks in. In a performance filled with relatable family comedy, Williams delivers some of the plays most memorable lines: “freedom is life, not money,” and “the true test of love is the ability to love a person when he is at his lowest.”
Mama Lena, who uses the insurance money from her husband’s death to buy her family a small house–in an all-white neighborhood–is able to see if she taught her children to do what is right when the head of the neighborhood’s “welcoming committee” Karl Linder (Collice Moore, Jr.) drops by to offer them more money than they paid for the house to buy it back from them.
More than half a century later, A Raisin in the Sun remains familiar to working class families with its effective display of passion for change and the constant struggles poor families face as they strive for independence and the American dream, always while maintaining their dignity. Touted by the New York Times as “the play that changed American theater forever,” Hansberry’s play, full of inspiration and hope, still inspires change in the hearts and minds of people everywhere.
View photos from the show, taken by Lisa Ellison Wilbourne.
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