`A Raisin in the Sun': greatness that lasts

Revival: Arena Players reinforce the power, poignancy of Lorraine Hansberry's play.

May 29, 2000|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

When it opened four decades ago, Lorraine Hansberry's groundbreaking play, "A Raisin in the Sun," heralded a number of "firsts": It was the first Broadway play written by a black woman, the first staged by a black director and the first serious drama about black life ever mounted on Broadway.

Since then, the play has become such an icon, it was turned into a musical, "Raisin," in 1973, and was the subject of a sketch titled, "The Last-Mama-on-the-Couch Play," as part of George C. Wolfe's 1986 parody, "The Colored Museum."

This much baggage could weigh a play down. But Arena Players' moving revival reinforces the work's greatness. Under the sure-handed direction of William T. Brown, retired chairman of the theater department at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, the performances make the characters' relationships and relentless yearnings as poignant as the day they were written. Nor, as the news tends to remind us, are the concerns of a black family moving to a white neighborhood outdated.

The archetypal matriarch in "A Raisin in the Sun" is Lena Younger, a domestic about to come into $10,000 from her late husband's insurance policy. Almost everyone in the Younger family has plans for this money. Lena's son, Walter, would like to use it to open a liquor store; his sister, Beneatha, wants to go to medical school. But the insurance check is made out to Lena -- played by Charisse Caldwell with an impressive mixture of compassion and moral fortitude -- and she has her own ideas.

Lena's dream is to move her family out of their crowded Southside Chicago apartment and into the nicest house she can find for the least amount of money. As it turns out, that house is in a white neighborhood.

But "A Raisin in the Sun" -- the title comes from Langston Hughes' poem that includes the lines: "What happens to a dream deferred?/Does it dry up/Like a raisin in the sun?" -- is about more than civil rights. Hansberry included the issues of black pride (Beneatha wears her hair in the style later known as an Afro) and African identity (she is being courted by a Nigerian exchange student who encourages her to learn more about her heritage).

The play is also about the universal issue of familial love and respect, and Arena's production is at its best when it conveys the strong but strained bonds between the members of the Younger family. Caldwell's Lena will stop at nothing to keep her family together and moving toward a better future. It breaks her heart that Walter measures that future in dollars and cents.

Marc Stevens portrays Walter, a chauffeur striving to be his own man, with breathtaking intensity. He also achieves the difficult task of justifying Walter's goals. The character may have confused materialism with happiness, but as played by Stevens, he really is doing what he believes is best for his family, not merely for himself.

As Beneatha, Gloria Bigelow depicts the passion and single-mindedness of a driven college student. Maria Broom is a bit subdued as Walter's wife, yet she displays the quiet frustration of a loving spouse who fears her marriage may be crumbling. From Derrell Owens' cocky portrayal of a rich scion of Chicago's black aristocracy to Alan Dale's skittish depiction of a less-than-welcoming "community improvement association" representative, the entire cast does this landmark drama proud.

With a plot that at times veers toward melodrama, "A Raisin in the Sun" can easily become overwrought, and with history resting on its shoulders, it can just as easily be treated with excessive reverence. Director Brown has not only avoided these pitfalls, he has created a production imbued with wisdom and warmth. The result surely ranks as one of Arena Players's finest productions.

Show times at Arena Players, 801 McCulloh St., are 8: 30 p.m. Friday, 7: 30 p.m. Saturday and 4 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $15. Call 410-728-6500.

Two works off-Broadway

Next week, two Center Stage productions will be running off-Broadway for first time in the theater's history. On June 6, director/choreographer George Faison's production of Ntozake Shange's "for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf" opens at the American Place Theatre. It previously played a one-week run at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem.

And Center Stage's 1999 production of August Wilson's "Jitney" has been extended through mid-July at New York's Second Stage Theatre. It opened in April.

The show has won a slew of awards, including best play of the year from the New York Drama Critics Circle, and Drama Desk and Obie awards for outstanding ensemble acting.

The play's director, Center Stage associate artist Marion McClinton, also won an Obie Award. He was unable to accept it in person, however, since he was in Boston rehearsing Wilson's latest play, "King Hedley II," which opened last week at the Huntington Theatre Company.

One-woman comic show

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