The Justice Theater Project has opened its 2014-15 season with A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry’s iconic depiction of one black family struggling to find peace and success in 1950s Chicago. The play chronicles the events surrounding the Younger family’s receipt of the patriarch’s life insurance money, the sum of ten thousand dollars. In the 1950s, this amount of money would be equivalent to half a million dollars at today’s rate. The funds mark a turning point in the fortunes of the family, and there is much discussion over what exactly should be done with it.
The family is crammed into an apartment which has the bathroom located down the hall. The small two-bedroom flat has only one window, over the kitchen sink, and it faces a brick wall. We see the family’s cramped existence on the day before the check is to arrive; Travis (Kaylon Edwards) sleeps on the couch. Ruth (Connie McCoy Rogers) wakens him for school at the same time she rouses her husband, Walter Lee (Joseph Callender). Also awakening is Walter’s younger sister, Beneatha (Aurelia Belfield), and the topic of discussion is the impending arrival of the money. Ruth reminds Walter that the funds belong to Mama, Lena Younger (Rozlyn Sorrell). Walter feels the money should go toward his start-up, a liquor store. But Mama has other ideas.
Everyone has his own underlying desire. We learn that Ruth is pregnant; she is not at all sure she wishes to keep the baby. Walter is trying to become an entrepreneur, and he has friends with whom he wants to start a new business. Beneatha wants to become a doctor, and needs funds for college. But Mama’s lifelong dream is to have a home of her own, with a yard and a garden. She uses $3500 to put a down payment on a house in Clybourne Park, which is a white neighborhood. She gives the rest to Walter, with a caveat: he is to set up a college fund for Beneatha, and use the rest for a checking account in his name. But Walter has other plans for the funds, which he believes will make the family wealthy. He gives all $6500 to his friend and partner, who immediately skips town with it. The news is brought to him by Bobo (Jamal Farrar), who was to be the third partner in the firm. Walter, and the whole family, is devastated.
The production is directed by two young women, Sidney Edwards and Terra Hodge. The two have a firm grasp of what is at stake here in the Younger household. The battle between Walter and his mother over what is to be done reaches a fever pitch when Walter decides he will get Mama’s money back from “the man,” Karl Lindner (John Honeycutt). Everyone but Walter is dead set against it. But Walter invites Lindner back to the house to negotiate selling the house back to Clybourne Park.
The play takes place on a small and crowded stage that indicates the box in which this family is put. The doors are too narrow, the rooms are too small and the windows are too few. Despite their differences, the family members all want out. The apartment has kept them all down much too long. But the place is clean and tidy; Mama and Ruth have seen to that. Both the women ache for the space and sunlight that the new house will afford them. But the house is slipping away; Walter’s desire to “stick it to the man” puts the move in jeopardy.
Lorraine Hansberry fully understands the hole in which the Younger family finds itself. In 1950s Chicago there are few avenues of advancement for a black man without money. Walter’s ideas are sound but he falls victim to forces beyond his control. Callender controls Walter’s demons well; we see the need for revenge and justice in Walter’s eyes. Mama well understands his predicament but cannot agree with his methods; the battle between Walter and his mother rages throughout the play. Sorrell played the family matriarch as strong on conviction but fragile in her love for her son and his family; her best seems woefully incomplete in the face of events. Her faith is shaken but not dashed. She continues to love her son despite his efforts to destroy her dream.
The Justice Theater Project has brought together a fine ensemble cast to bring the Younger family to life. Layers of depth are added to the play by this cast. Familial bonds are created and destroyed, and created again. Dreams are challenged and the underlying subtext that the family creates gives a vivid account of the black family under siege at the midpoint of the twentieth century. Despite the time in which it is placed, the play still speaks the truth that dreams may well be deferred, but they are not destroyed. The familial bond that holds this family together weathers the storm that is thrown at it. Walter comes to realize this in just the nick of time.
The design team for this production is a triumvirate of Artistic Director Deb Royals, Courtney Hayes-Rainey, and Jeff Nugent. The team includes several aspects of design that create an unmistakable air of cramped quarters. All three doorways are small, and it is not a stage requirement. This aspect alone signifies cramped quarters. Also, we are given the opportunity to see into the bedroom of Walter and Ruth: it contains one narrow bed and a bedside table, but both are too small for two people. This is another indication of cramped quarters in a set specifically designed with scrim walls for this viewing. A simple door stage right would have completely eliminated this view and not allowed us to see what obstacles to comfort this family deals with on a daily basis. This set lends weight to both Ruth's and Lena's desire to have a home of their own.
The key to understanding A Raisin in the Sun is the interaction among Lena, Ruth, and Walter. At the top on the show, the three appear to be at odds with each other. Sorrells, Rogers, and Callender masterfully recreated the bonds, as well as the schisms, that rule this triangle. To see the three interrelate, showing both the deep divides and the bridges they have built to span them, was a treat for the theatergoer. Sorrells, especially, handled this dichotomy extremely well; her portrayal of disappointment at Callender's acts, as well as the pride she feels at the play's end, were truly sublimely handled.
A Raisin in the Sun has withstood the test of time; it is just as true today as it was when it was written over a half-century ago. The Justice Theatre Project's presentation is compact, tight, and well modulated in its intensity and its desires. The basic internal family struggle, the man's need to provide and the woman's need for home, is strongly argued on both fronts. The overall desire, as Blacks seek their share of the American Dream, is clear and radiant. Strong characters and ensemble acting bring the work to a breathtaking climax. This play is a classic, and this production is well worth your time.
A Raisin in the Sun continues through Sunday, September 21. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.