By Tristan Lejeune
My high school drama teacher used to say that you can’t go wrong with a classic.
She was incorrect, of course — she usually was — but Arena Stage certainly doesn’t go wrong with their production of A Raisin in the Sun, their first-ever staging of Lorraine Hansberry’s seminal 1959 drama.
The Younger family of south side Chicago is black, working-class, and sick of living in a cramped, roach-infested apartment that’s far too small for them. Running hottest is Walter Lee (Will Cobbs), whose long-denied dreams of financial independence have him practically climbing the walls. Beneatha (Joy Jones) plans to be a doctor and starts to discover a restless pride in her native African roots. And little Travis (Jeremiah Hasty, adorable) would probably just like to stop sleeping on the couch.
Raisin in the Sun and the Langston Hughes poem from which it takes its name are about when dreams (and the American dream) cease to be our wings and become our burden. One can only wish for a better life for but so long before it “fester(s) like a sore.” Sadly, this theme may speak to even more Americans today than it did midcentury — we’ve become a nation capable of infinite fantasy, but constricted by limited economic mobility.
For no one is this more true than African-Americans, though the Youngers spy a possible salvation in the windfall of life insurance. A never-seen patriarch has bequeathed this family of strivers a new nest egg of $10,000, and everyone has plans about how to spend it.
An intriguing native Nigerian arrives to bring some much-needed perspective. A community board white devil brings still more.
The play’s secret weapon: It’s knee-slapping funny. It’d be terrible and maudlin if it wasn’t, frankly, but Hansberry and director Tazewell Thompson know that humor enriches the soul.
Arena’s cast plays this old standard with vim and verve, none more so that Dawn Ursula as Ruth, a loving mother and passionate wife who’s also the story’s emotional center. Ursula might be the best actress in D.C. at finding laughs where before there were none (watch her facial expression when her sister-in-law asks if a pregnancy was intended), but it goes beyond laughs: she makes the audience feel her frustration, and her yearning. Just as amazing is Lizan Mitchell as grandmother Lena, who carries the weight of being the voice of religion, experience, and homespun wisdom without ever descending into cliche. Mitchell delivers her lines like they were a physical part of herself, her fists gripped tightly with a fury that remembers the Jim Crow era firsthand.
These two act from the tops of the heads to the tips of their toes — they could well be each other’s biggest competition for the Helen Hayes Award.
The costumes, designed by Harry Nadal, will really wow you, particularly Beneatha’s choice looks, from a paisley halter top to a gorgeous wraparound print. Less so the set, which has a harder job. The Younger’s home should feel like it’s closing in around them, but the Fichandler’s in-the-round stage puts them in a fishbowl, not a cage. It’s hard to feel claustrophobic when there’s so much air.
But it’s not even a distraction — indeed, very little could distract — from these performances. It’s possible to mess up a classic, but this Raisin in the Sun sure doesn’t.