Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play gets a faithful treatment in APT’s 2022 production directed by Tasia A. Jones. The director has strong ties to Chicago. And, through Writers Theatre’s “MLK Project,” she’s steeped in the era in Chicago in which “Raisin” unfolds. The play famously takes place in a part of the city’s African American South Side where the five-person Younger family occupies a small, decaying kitchenette apartment. There, they dream of a better life and better world.
They also fight against the seemingly inevitable poverty and structural constraints that suppress Black Americans. The college-aged daughter, the unsubtly named Beneatha, latches onto the promise of rising Black nationalism in Africa and Afrocentrism at home. An angry adult son, Walter Lee, a kind of Black Willy Loman (note the initials), desperately hopes to lift his fortunes with an investment in a liquor store arranged by a fishy drinking buddy. Beneatha and Walter are the two most overtly forceful characters in Hansberry’s play, but the spiritual centers of the drama are the two mothers, the family’s widowed matriarch Lena and Walter’s long-suffering wife Ruth. In her director’s note, Jones writes that “most productions place Walter Lee Younger, Jr. at the center of the story because of the depth of his passion, [but] I see [Ruth and Lena] quietly holding their family together and carrying the weight of the world as they do it.” Lena’s moral hold on the family is rooted in her strong adherence to God and insistence that the family stay together and work for their overall well-being. More immediately she has power over the rest through the famously promised check for $10,000 that is due to arrive as the death benefit from an insurance policy her husband paid for from his hard-earned, meager salary. Ten thousand dollars then equals roughly a hundred thousand today.
Walter wants a big chunk of the funds for his liquor-store deal, but Lena intends to use it for Beneatha’s medical school education and for a house of her own that she’s long wanted. Walter cruelly distances himself from Ruth as he angles for the money, but Ruth fights for their future together. Hansberry faced criticism from white commentators for the formulaic story, but she rightly insisted the battles, humiliations, pride and yearnings of the Youngers grew out of their Black experience. While some of the characters may read as dated in 2022, the play proves to be remarkably prescient. The anxieties over the family’s planned move to an all-white Chicago neighborhood presage the city’s continuing racial divides. Beneatha’s rant to her African boyfriend on the challenges and future corruption facing newly decolonized African countries proves to have been bitterly on the mark. Jones has a fine cast to bring Hansberry’s portrayal of Youngers’ particular and universal concerns forward. Deanna Reed-Foster is a strong and lovable Lena. Yet, it is Gina Daniels’ Ruth that is the biggest surprise. She brings a depth to her quiet character that rises above the noisier family members. Gavin Lawrence and Charence Higgins as Walter and Beneatha play brother and sister with competing futures so that we root for both while feeling the comeuppance on the way.
“A Raisin in the Sun” at American Players Theatre, 5950 Golf Course Road, Spring Green, Wisconsin, (608)588-2361, americanplayers.org. Through October 7.