By Ande Jacobson
The Washington Post includes Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” as part of an inner circle of ground-breaking American plays. Pear Avenue Theatre closes its Americana season with Hansberry’s landmark work and treats it with the deference and appreciation it deserves.
First produced in 1959 at the dawn of the civil rights movement, Hansberry’s play tackles tough issues – racial equality and women’s rights. Following a blue collar African American family, “A Raisin in the Sun” is powerful, and it is just as relevant today as it was when first introduced. Written in three acts (although often performed in two), the story takes place in the 1950s in the Youngers’ apartment on Chicago’s Southside. Lena Younger is the family matriarch living with her grown son Walter Lee, her daughter Beneatha, her daughter-in-law Ruth, and her ten year old grandson, Travis.
A major conflict surrounds Lena’s inheritance from her deceased husband – an insurance check for ten thousand dollars which is a lot of money for the 1950s. Walter, Lena, Ruth, and Bennie want different things from the money, but it’s Lena’s, and it’s her decision. Lena sets out to divide the money in thirds – one third for Bennie’s education to eventually become a doctor, one third for Walter Lee to manage and invest, and one third as a down payment on a house. The problem is that the house she chooses is in Clybourne Park – a white Chicago neighborhood.
Additionally, Ruth and Walter are having marital problems, and Bennie is searching for her roots while attending college, caught between two suitors, George Murchison – a rich local college boy, and Joseph Asagai – an exotic student from Nigeria studying in Chicago.
Ron Gasparinetti’s single set brings us into the Youngers’ dilapidated living room, the furniture showing appropriate wear from many decades of use. Three doors are apparent, two lead to bedrooms, one is the front door leading to the external hallway and the communal bathroom shared with neighboring apartments. Framed photos from the time adorn the walls, although some are subject to falling off when the front door is slammed. The tiny kitchen is stocked with appropriate accoutrements. The working window is dressed with a rollup blind and curtains, and a scraggly plant sits upon the sill.
Sound designers Jeanie K. Smith and Gordon Smith include period appropriate jazz music to provide the background over scene changes and to accent the action. The on-stage ringing rotary telephone provides a nice touch.
Barbara Murray’s costumes capture 1950s America. The one notable departure is a brightly colored set of African robes that Asagai presents to Bennie. He describes them as appropriate for a well-dressed Nigerian woman.
Co-directors Aldo Billingslea and Sara Capule have kept the writing intact, including scenes that at one time after publication were deleted and then were reintroduced in more recent productions. While some of the dialog is tinged with 1950s language usage as opposed to current constructs, it works in this period piece.
The strong cast has a number of standout performances. Kendra Owens as Lena Younger and Yha’ Mourhia D. Wright as Beneatha Younger are particularly striking. Owens commands the stage, and the family, in her strong, yet sympathetic portrayal of the matriarch trying to do her level best to not only keep the family together and keep her deceased husband’s memory alive, but also to give them hope and encouragement for a better future. She’s natural in her delivery and is eminently believable. Wright is powerful, obstinate, and convincing as an idealistic college student trying to find herself, railing against authority and “old” ideas. She eschews the slang and sloppy speech common in her character’s community, and her elocution takes on a crisp, clear air. She’s got particularly good chemistry with Bezachin Jifar as Joseph Asagai as he tries to convince her to follow her dream to become a doctor and then follow him back home to Africa.
Michael Wayne Rice as Walter Lee Younger Jr. has a difficult role which he pulls off well for the most part. Although he occasionally struggles with some of his lines – “…pearls around my neck’s wife…” – he’s in the moment and stays completely in character, so he’s believable. He changes mood well, from hopeful in his dreams, to being frustrated with his current station in life, to downtrodden when he makes an almost insurmountable mistake. Jennifer Perkins-Stephens as Walter’s wife Ruth has some very touching scenes with both Rice and Owens, but when she has to flare in anger or exasperation at either Rice or William David Southall as her son Travis, she appears to be playing to a bigger venue and overpowers those scenes just a little.
Southall’s Travis is believable although his speech is somewhat muddled. He also needs to watch out for minor costume malfunctions on at least one quick change.
Rene’ Marquerite Banks as Mrs. Johnson is annoying, but she’s supposed to be. Her scene is one that had been cut and was reinstated to serve as a reference to a stereotypical meddling neighbor. It also provides some context for the dangers of the times.
Bennie’s suitors both continue the distinction between the college elite and the working class with their clear crisp diction. Aside from that, Alec F. Brown’s George Murchison and Jifar’s Asagai couldn’t be more disparate. Jifar comes across as charming and worldly; whereas, Brown is flat and single dimensional, in large part due to how his character is written, and there’s no chemistry between him and Wright.
The remaining two members of the cast are Keith C. Marshall as Karl Lindner and Dimitri Woods as Bobo, both playing small, but pivotal roles. Marshall is measured and very deliberate in his delivery as a “committee member”. Woods on the other hand is rushed as a bearer of bad news, his character uncomfortable with the message he must deliver.
“A Raisin in the Sun” is a socially relevant play well worth seeing, and this is a solid production. It takes the audience on a heartfelt journey it won’t soon forget.
Performances continue Wednesday through Sunday, 10 July at the Pear Avenue Theatre – 1220 Pear Ave, Unit K, Mountain View, CA 94043-1447. See: http://www.thepear.org or call 650-254-1148 for more information or to order tickets.