The first ever production at Crossroads Theatre Company of Lorraine Hansberry’s first and best play “A Raisin in the Sun” is commendable. The opening night was made extra special by having the playwright’s 87-year-old sister, Mamie Hansberry, not only in the audience, but able to speak (she says, “thanks to a very dry martini”) briefly on behalf of her entire family, long time activists in the civil rights movement. “Raisin” may not be a masterpiece, but it remains an emotionally stirring drama. And the well-acted production, under the direction of Eric Ruffin, serves the play as it does for some of us the memory of it.
Anyone with a memory of the experience when it opened in 1959 will never forget the collectively electrifying performances of Sidney Poitier, Diana Sands, Ruby Dee, Claudia McNeil, and Louis Gossett. I can recall being moved to cheer (an unusual thing to happen at that time) for what seemed like forever. A respectable Broadway revival in 2004 was notable mainly by the presence of rap raconteur contemporary icon (P. Diddy) Sean Combs in the pivotal role of Walter Lee Younger, a young Chicago man whose dreams of becoming a success are continually being crushed by a lack of economic opportunity.
The Crossroads audience was also moved to cheer this production as well as the performance of Jimonn Cole, as Walter. No one expected Cole to outshine or challenge Poitier. But acting a role that requires great virtuosity and formidable emotional fluctuations from desolation to exaltation, from despondency to joy, certainly proves to be within Cole’s reach.
Working without amplification (always preferable in a play), the other cast members take a bit longer to find the right energy level to make themselves heard without diminishing the effectiveness of their performances. The incontestable dynamics of the play are more fully realized in Act II with everyone apparently feeling the heat of the text as well as each others’ performances.
As for the play, whose title comes from a poem by Langston Hughes (“What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?”) Set in the 1950s in the south side of Chicago apartment (modestly evoked by set designer Jeremy Doucette) of an African-American family, the play was and remains a classic forerunner of its socially conscious genre. Credit the artistry of Hansberry for her plot which is pure, honest family drama without any polemics or stereotypical posturing.
When a recent widow, Lena Younger (Petronia Paley), receives $10,000 from her late husband’s insurance company, she becomes determined to move her family out of their dangerous neighborhood to the suburbs. Inevitably, Lena’s plan conflicts with the plans and wishes of the others. The desperate and reckless Walter Lee wants the money to open a liquor store, and the eldest daughter, Beneatha (Vichelle Jones), has her sights on attending medical school.
Dragged into these conflicted priorities are Walter Lee’s wife, Ruth (Chantal Jean-Pierre), who works as a domestic, and his sister Beneatha’s two suitors, the rich and stuffy Americanized George Murchison (Johnny Ramey) and the Nigerian student Asagai (Irungu Mutu), who wants to return to his roots with Beneatha. More seen than heard but not missing anything is Walter Lee and Ruth’s young son, Travis (Gregory Barnes). Bjorn Dupaty is excellent in the small role of Walter Lee’s friend Bobo, proving once again that there is no such thing as a small role. The only white provocateur is Karl Lindner (a superbly despicable Andy Prosky) who, as a representative of the “neighborhood association,” attempts to sweet talk the family from making a rash move into their territory.
The beauty of the play is not that it lacks archetypal types but that the characters are so authentically conceptualized and so completely convincing that they exist beyond whatever social or ideological tract is in Hansbury’s text by implication. Although I would to have liked to have some members of the cast project their lines with more force and, indeed, volume so we would not miss as many lines as we do, I suspect this will be corrected in future performances.
Paley’s performance as Lena, the matriarchal rock of the family, essentially ratchets up the dramatics when it becomes necessary. Jean-Pierre comes closest to defining her character as it should be defined right from the start and never misses a beat as the wife whose inner strength and unflappable support never wavers. Jones is luminous and amusing as the rebellious Beneatha. And Mutu passionately communicates Asagai’s nationalistic fervor.
Anyone interested in experiencing one of the earliest milestones in African-American theater has to make “A Raisin in the Sun” a must-see, especially in the light of the problems arising out of our current suspicions regarding Muslims and Middle Eastern cultures.
“A Raisin in the Sun,” through Sunday, May 1, Crossroads Theater Company, 7 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. $40 to $65. 732-545-8100.