[originally published: http://aislesay.com/CHI-RAISIN.html]


Based on A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry
Book by Robert Nemiroff and Charlotte Zaltzberg
Music by Judd Woldin
Lyrics by Robert Brittan
Directed by Charles Newell
Starring Ernestine Jackson
Court Theatre at the University of Chicago
5535 S. Ellis Avenue / (773) 753-4472
Through October 22, 2006

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
September 23, 2006

Charles Newell has staged a dynamic, Greek, “everyone is watching and responding to this universal story” powerhouse of a revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s simple and profound story of an African American family’s dreams, expectations, experiences with racism and finally, their strength and love for one another. This is a rare glimpse of a 1970s musical rarely performed; perhaps this respectful and joyous production will help to change that state of affairs.

Raisin is dressed by scenic designer John Dalton both literally (with appropriate thrift store furniture) and stylistically (with auditorium seating extending in an arc across the back of the stage between the musicians upstage and the playing area downstage). Characters not involved in particular scenes exit through the house or off stage left or right, and almost immediate take one of these 12 auditorium seats, viewing, sometimes reacting to the action before them (as their characters or as human beings – either interpretation works here). This is a community event for the characters, for this conceptualization of the play, and for the actors inhabiting these lives for the several hours of each performance. Watching the observers can be an entertaining as watching the primary action in this production.

The story is straightforward, befitting our single set and powerfully direct performances. The Younger family has survived the death of its patriarch, live together and support one another: mama Lena (Ernestine Jackson), disappointed son Walter Lee (David St. Louis), Walter’s hardworking and loyal wife Ruth (Harriet Nzinga Plumpp), dreamy and self-absorbed teenager Beneatha (Malkia Stampley), and Walter and Ruth’s son Travis (played for my performance by sweet Scott Baity, Jr.). Into this core family other current and potential future neighbors appear. Our story involves how this family finds its footing through opportunities and disappointments. A life insurance pay off after Walter Senior passes away (the play talks little about dad except some reminiscences about him staring off after another long day’s work and dreaming about roads not taken) is one spark behind this family’s transformation. There are several additional objectives or actions that propel this story forward including the arrival of a Nigerian doctor Joseph Asagai (played thrillingly by Travis Turner) who shows Beneatha a different way to think of herself as an African American woman; and a family crisis that causes mama Lena to pull the family together through the eleven o’clock number “Measure the Valleys”.

Here there are dramatically staged gems, fine lines, and several transporting tunes. We have Lena on the concept of her dream of a house on a dead-end street: “Dead end street … a funny name for a place where people’s dreams begin.” Women’s roles are explored in several dimensions. Teenaged Beneatha dreams to be a doctor and as a teenager is focused exclusively on herself. Ruth helps Walter and son Travis achieve their dreams. Lena creates nurturing soil for other things to grow. She “always wanted a garden” and is living in one of her own creation – a fact that she and her children understand by the end of the play. Lena reports to Walter about the decisions that women are forced to make: “When the world gets ugly enough, there’s nothing a woman won’t do for her family — her family that’s living that is.” Lena underscores the importance of home ownership herself as a place for things to grow, and for her son: “It makes a difference to a man when he walks on boards that belongs to him.”

One of the many splendors of this production is the presence of a fabulous performer who gave a prize-winning performance in another role in the original Broadway production in the early 1970s. Ernestine Jackson played Ruth in the original Broadway version of this musical adaptation. In the current prize of a production Ms. Jackson as Lena Younger elicits hushed appreciation then a roar of applause from the crowd at several points, especially after her two smashing solos “A Whole Lotta Sunlight” (about hope and nurturing a plant, and a dream “There’s no need to remember how it ought to be / There’ll be a whole lot of sunlight .. “) and “Measure the Valleys” (about family support through thick and thin). Expect tears and a welcome urge to applaud.

The stark musical arrangements function delightfully well for the bulk of the production. One exception to this is the Act I curtain at which Walter expresses in speech and in song his anger and frustration. The stripped down ensemble that is perfectly lovely for the mellow ballad numbers or sinewy dance numbers, is challenged by the blasting angry tones that Walter Lee’s “You Done Right” requires. This music needs a floor. This song should be menacing and angry and it doesn’t quite achieve that But this is a quibble.

Finally, a comment about what is and what is not in the production program or playbill. We have lovely dramaturgical essays in this program (with thanks due to the production dramaturg Jocelyn Prince). Why then do we have no note of the two act structure and the intermission? And most pressing for this musical loving critic, why is there no conventional listing of the song titles along with the characters who perform them? For an undeservedly rarely performed musical set piece, part of the purpose of fine productions such as this one is to introduce the piece and its songs to a new audience. Help us to remember the titles. The Internet Broadway Database helped me, but the additional research should not have been required. Some of these tunes should be standards.

© Martha Wade Steketee (September 23, 2006)

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