Dreams are a central motif of Lorraine Hansberry’s groundbreaking 1959 drama, A Raisin in the Sun. Tony Awards and fellowships followed for Hansberry who based this realistic look at African-American life during the Civil Rights Era on the experiences of her own family who bought a home in a white neighborhood and ended up suing to stay in it. The Hansberrys were harassed and reviled. Hansberry’s Younger family is warned that these sorts of things could happen to them if they move into a house the matriarch, Lena (Bonnie M. Harmon) buys to help her children, Walter Lee (J. Samuel Davis) and Beneatha (Olivia Neal), Walter Lee’s pregnant wife, Ruth (Shaundra Gordon) and their son Travis (Kyshun Clark-Templeton). “Mama” believes that her children are about to implode with the frustration of living together in a small apartment on Chicago’s south side. She still works now and then as a domestic, which is also Ruth’s regular job. Walter Lee is a chauffeur and he deeply resents it. Beneatha is the outlier here. She is 20 years old to Walter’s 35, and just beginning her own journey. She is a college student studying medicine, and she sees race issues quite differently from the rest of her family.
Walter Lee buries his frustrations in alcohol, and blows up at his family when he’s drunk. No matter how he behaves, his mother adores him but she has never trusted him with the household finances, and their circumstances are on the cusp of a big change: Her late husband’s insurance check is due in the mail the morning after the play opens, and it is for $10,000, a small fortune to the Youngers. Walter Lee wants to go in with his friends on a liquor store, an idea his mother dismisses out of hand, so he implores Ruth to intercede because she gets along well with his mother. She does halfheartedly talk to the older woman, but like Mama, Ruth dreams of using the windfall for a real home of their own where there is room to spread out, a yard for 10-year-old Travis, and a symbol of a brighter future for them all. One thing Mama insists upon is that $3,000 be put aside for Beneatha’s tuition.
For me, the character of Beneatha is problematic because the family seems to be just wallowing in poverty, but her little (and fleeting) dreams of horseback riding, playing the guitar and such are indulged, and quite a bit of money seems to go to her for these pursuits plus she has a nice wardrobe, while Ruth wears dowdy housedresses. I don’t understand where they get the money to spend on Beneatha, and only minimal reference is made to the subject. Beneatha herself embodies the spirit of a new order but one which still is rooted in Africa as represented by one of her suitors, the Nigerian student Joseph Asagai (Don McClendon). The other man she dates is wealthy George Murchison (Carl Overly), who Walter Lee thinks is a jerk, but since he’s a rich jerk, “Brother” can’t understand why Beneatha doesn’t want to marry him. Neal takes a while to warm up, but she is good in the role.
Gordon makes Ruth’s fatigue so much a part of her character that she even walks tired. Unfortunately, she talks that way too, and is sometimes hard to understand, but this underplaying does make her breakdown late in the show effective. Throughout, she doesn’t hide the fact that she is martyring herself for the family, willing even to have an illegal abortion because of her marital and financial problems. Harmon’s Lena is well-played and has good chemistry with Ruth, especially. Lena’s blind spot is her children and grandson, and the effect that has on all of them is demonstrated in various ways. McClendon does a nice job with the philosophical Asagai, though his age is distracting. Overly seems uncomfortable, but maybe that’s mostly because his clothes are too tight. Overall, there are no distractingly weak performances.
Davis, who has played Walter Lee before, is the most compelling part of the show. Of course, Walter Lee is the most interesting and puzzling character, which helps, but Davis, as he always does, turns in a finely tuned performance which expresses all the emotions that are just under the surface of this troubled man. His own life has disappointed him so far, and he wants more, partly for his son, but also for himself. He often treats Ruth dismissively or attacks her verbally, but she seems to lack the strength to even give him a good fight. These are people living on the edge of the abyss, and then the check comes.
As so often happens, money causes as many problems as it alleviates, and in the Youngers’ case, perhaps even more. But after Mama puts a down payment on the house she wants in Clybourne Park, she still has $6,500 left, which she gives to Walter Lee, at last telling him he is “the man of the house.” This expression of trust plus the wealth that comes with it makes Walter Lee a changed man. He gets some snappy clothes, and he makes some lousy decisions. On top of it all, the Youngers receive a visit from Karl Linder (Greg Matzger) from the Clybourne Park Neighborhood Association who tries to talk them out of the move. Nasty neighbor Mrs. Johnson (Karen Matkins) drops by to stir up trouble too.Technical elements of the show are less than stellar, but we do get the sense of disappointment all around in the set. Everything is old and shabby and cramped. Travis even has to sleep on the couch because the two small bedrooms are occupied by his parents and his grandmother and aunt. The hall bathroom outside the apartment is shared, which provides another level of frustration and discomfort. The only new life we see around us besides Travis himself and Beneatha is Mama’s prized little plant that is and remains the symbol of hope for the family as they continue to pursue their dreams.