Monday, October 15, 2012

Theater Review: A Raisin in the Sun -- Westport

Luka Kain, Lynda Gravátt, and Susan Kelechi Watson . Photo:. Charles Erickson
How it All Started -- Before Clybourne Park
By Lauren Yarger
A Raisin n the Sun has been a classic, telling of the American African experience at the dawn of the Civil Rights movement on Chicago's South Side, since it first debuted on Broadway in 1959 (the first play by an African-American woman to be produced on the Great White Way). While some plays that broke ground in the mid 20th century have seemed sleepy and a mere rehash of old concerns when they have been revived recently, that's not the case for Westport County Playhouse's neat production directed by Phylicia Rashad.
A focus on characters -- whose future legacy is the premise of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize winning play Clybourne Park -- makes this production of Lorraine Hansberry's work feel like a visit to old friends, or a smile-filled time of flipping the memories in a family photo album because we know how it all turned out. Rashad herself brings memories to the show: she won the 2004 Tony Award for best Actress for her portrayal of Ruth in the Broadway revival.
Hansberry was inspired to write A Raisin in the Sun by her family's battle against racial segregation in Chicago. The Younger family is awaiting the arrival of an insurance check that could change their lives and get them out of the "rat trap" they rent. It's crowded. Sharing the apartment are matriarch Lena (Lynda Gravátt), daughter Beneatha (Edena Hines), son Walter Lee (Billy Eugene Jones) and his wife, Ruth (Susan Kelchi Watson), their son, Travis (Luka Kain) who has to make his bed on the living room couch. Each has a different idea of how the $10,000 left after the death of Lena's husband should be used, but most vocal is Walter Lee. He wants to leave behind his job of a "yes, sir," "no, sir," chauffeur it to invest in a liquor store with a couple of buddies.
Lena, making plain to Walter Lee that she is the head of the family, decrees that part of the money wil be used to finance Beneatha's dream to be a doctor and another part will finance a dream she shares with Ruth: a home of their own. Walter Lee's drinking hasn't helped the growing estrangement between him and his wife and she has plans to abort the baby. Moving up might just keep the family together. The dream almost turns into a nightmare, however, when Lena puts a down payment on a house in the all-white neighborhood of Clybourne Park.
Karl Linder (John Hemphill), president of the neighborhood's "welcoming committee," pays a visit and makes it clear that the Clybourne Park folks don't want any of "you people" bringing down the values of their homes. He offers to buy the Youngers out of their agreement -- a proposition that first angers the family, but later might be necessary when Walter Lee makes a huge mistake and invests some funds in a scheme with sidekick Bobo (Alvin Crawford).
Meanwhile, Benny struggles to find an identity, the extremes of which are represented in the two men she dates: Joseph Asagai (Hubert Point-Du Jour), a fellow student from Nigeria who encourages her to embrace her roots and George Murchison (Gabriel Brown), a sort of nerdy guy who has assimilated himself into the white culture.

The decisions they make and the effect give the play its name, taken from the poem “Harlem” by Langston Hughes, which includes the lines: “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?” Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris is a response to A Raisin in the Sun and reprises the Linder character. (You can see Clybourne Park here in Connecticut May 8- June 2 at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven).

Performances are good (David Blackwell associate directs), with actors clothed in period (and African) garb by costume designer Esosa on Edward Burbridge's detailed set that show a worse-for-wear apartment. Gravátt propels the show as the wise, faith-grounded matriarch who wants something better for her children and Watson delivers a layered Ruth full of warmth and depth.

A Raisin in The Sun plays through Nov. 3 at the Playhouse, 25 Powers Court, Westport. Ticket and performance information: 203-227-4177;

Other news about the show:

Westport Country Playhouse will present “A Day for Community,” on Sunday, Oct. 28, when all tickets will be $15 for the 3 pm matinee performance. Following the performance, there will be a “Post-Show Conversation: A Day for Community” centered on the theme of community as reflected in Hansberry’s play, featuring David J. Dent, professor of journalism at New York University, and Larri Mazon, chair of the Bridge Building Ministry at the Council of Churches of Greater Bridgeport. Additional guests to be announced. Before the performance, there will be a reception in the Playhouse lobby.

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)
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