Arena Stage has been around for a long time—since 1950 to be exact. So it’s quite surprising that it’s finally getting around to tackling the Lorraine Hansberry classic A Raisin in the Sun. Though, the timing could not be better: The issues the play addresses—the elusiveness of the American dream for families of color, racially segregated neighborhoods, and the role of women in the family dynamic—are as prevalent today as ever before.
A Raisin in the Sun became the toast of Broadway in 1959 when it premiered at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. It’s the first play written by a black woman to be produced on Broadway, and it would go on to win the New York Drama Critics’ Circle award for best play, while earning four Tony award nominations in 1960. Taking its title from the famous Langston Hughes poem, “Harlem,” the play was at least partly inspired by the playwright’s own familial experiences fighting housing discrimination in Chicago.
Veteran Arena Stage director Tazewell Thompson meticulously guides a talented cast through the telling of the Younger family’s complicated pursuit of the American dream—all in a cramped, roach-infested tenement on Chicago’s south side in the early 1950s.
The Youngers are a working-class black family, whose matriarch, Lena (played by Lizan Mitchell), wants the best for her two adult children, Walter Lee (Will Cobbs), and Benethea (Joy Jones), but is content with their limited lot in life. Walter Lee, however, hates his job as a chauffeur, and dreams of opening a liquor store. His long-suffering wife, Ruth (Dawn Ursula), takes care of their precocious young son, Travis (Jeremiah Hasty).
When Ursula appears onstage as Ruth in the very first scene—moving about the kitchen/living room space quietly, performing varying domestic tasks, while the rest of the family sleeps—there’s a subtle intensity in her wordless performance. And when she finally awakens her young son Travis, who has been sleeping soundly on their couch, the play moves into its decadent pacing and swiftly pulls the audience in.
Money is naturally at the center of the Youngers’ family drama, specifically a $10,000 check. A gift from the passing of Lena’s husband, the insurance check creates all sorts of conflict, especially between Lena—who’s often referred to as Mama—and Walter Lee. Lena eventually makes a down payment on a modest home in the all-white Clybourne Park neighborhood of Chicago, and that decision ramps up the drama in the second act.
Through Arena Stage’s two-hour and forty five-minute production, Thompson maintains a significant level of intimacy. Donald Eastman’s set is quite serviceable, portraying living quarters that never feels cluttered, while jazz music provides elegant ambiance for a number of the happier scenes. There is a poetic flow to much of Hansberry’s dialogue, and the actors excel at delivering it.
It’s difficult to mess up A Raisin in the Sun, but to Tazewell’s credit, his direction adds nuances to the work that distinguishes this production from others. There’s a natural chemistry between cast members, which solidifies them as a family, and makes their squabbles even more believable. The cast is all on the top of their game, with stand-out work by Cobbs, who brings real vulnerability to Walter Lee, and Ursula, who handles the dauntingly complex emotions experienced by Ruth with aplomb.
It’s Mama Lena though, who carries the greatest burden, and as portrayed by a dazzling Mitchell, helps to make Arena’s A Raisin in the Sun, one of their strongest productions in some time.
At Arena Stage to May 7. 1101 6th St. SW. $40-$90. (202) 488-3300. arenastage.org.