“What happens to a dream deferred?”
When playwright Lorraine Hansberry referenced the famous Langston Hughes poem in the title of her 1959 drama “A Raisin in the Sun,” she elegantly foreshadowed the heartache in store for the characters in her play. Like the struggling houseplant in the windowsill of Lena Yonger’s southside Chicago apartment, their dreams wither for want of sunlight but somehow refuse to die. This classic American story is currently being staged in a brilliant production at WSU’s Bonstelle Theatre, where it is the first installment of three plays that are billed as “The Raisin Cycle.”
“Raisin” is important as well as entertaining. Hansberry was the first black woman to write a play for the Broadway stage and was among the first to create a realistic snapshot of African-American life. She saw her play achieve critical acclaim but, sadly, died six years later of cancer at the age of 35. It’s tempting, if futile, to wonder what other masterpieces she might have written if she’d lived longer. Might she have returned to those amazing characters – the Younger family – to let us know what became of their dreams?
Certainly, Hansberry could not have predicted that more than 50 years after “Raisin” appeared on Broadway, two other playwrights (one American, one British) would be so inspired by her work that they’d weave the Younger family’s stories into their own original works. But happily, that’s the case. The powerful Bonstelle “A Raisin in the Sun” will be followed by a staged reading of “Beneatha’s Place” Kwame Kwei-Armah in the Studio (underneath the Hilberry Theatre) and then by “Clybourne Park,” by Bruce Norris, at the Hilberry Theatre. Seen as a trilogy, these plays take Hansberry’s provocative questions and lob them back and forth, across generations and across oceans, to leave us with few answers, but a solid platform for dialog.
The young Bonstelle cast does a masterful job of bringing these iconic characters to life.
Tiffany Michelle Thompson shines as the matriarch, Lena Younger. Along with her late husband, Lena represents the Great Migration of southern blacks who resettled in the urban north in search of a better life. Her journey has been one of sacrifice for her two children, and it is her deep religious faith that has helped her focus on things that truly matter. Everything she does is for family, but when she receives a large settlement from her husband’s life insurance, she realizes that her children’s values are not her own.
Lena’s son Walter Lee Younger, played with great passion by Donnevan Tolbert, is frustrated with his job as chauffeur to the rich white man. He has big dreams of being his own boss and making his own fortune. He is convinced that his mother’s money will solve all his problems. Ruth Younger (Tayler Jones) is Walter’s wife – a good and hard-working woman who is caught in the crossfire between the man she loves and everyone he believes is trying to crush his dreams. Their son Travis (Evan Franklin) is the beautiful child who represents the next generation. Like Lena, Ruth and Walter want something better for Travis – but getting there may require a different kind of sacrifice. Ruth is all steadfast patience. Walter is ready to explode.
Beneatha Younger (Kayla Mundy), is Lena’s daughter and Walter’s sister. She is studying to be a doctor and is much more intellectual and forward-thinking than her brother. Like the playwright herself, Beneatha is “young, gifted and black,” and is discovering a cultural pride that resists assimilation into white culture. The tension between her two worlds is physically manifested by Beneatha’s college beaus – the wealthy George Murchison (Gerald Palmer, Jr.), who is eager to assimilate – and the Nigerian Joseph Asagai (Yakeem Tatum), who is teaching Beneatha about Africa. Ironically, it is Joseph’s values that most closely align with Lena’s; the American granddaughter of slaves and the young man fighting for liberty in his own country of Nigeria understand what freedom really means, and why fighting for the next generation matters. Both carry an optimism that transcends their personal experience.
The cast also includes Nigel Tutt as Walter’s friend Bo Bo and Kevin Keller as Karl Linder, a white man sent to dissuade the Younger family from moving into his Cybourne Park neighborhood.
Billicia Charnelle Hines, who serves as the Director of the Black Theatre Program at the WSU Maggie Allesee Department of Theatre and Dance, directs this riveting production. “Perseverance lays the foundation of ‘A Raisin In The Sun;’ persevere while expanding beyond the confines of your comfort zone. Ruth says, ‘I’ll work? I’ll work twenty hours a day in all the kitchens in Chicago! I’ll strap my baby on my back if I have to, and scrub all the floors and wash all the sheets in America if I have to—but we got to move! We got to get out of here!’ This speaks to everyone and we all have to be willing to take a leap for something better in hopes that it will lead to more opportunities for the next generation.”
The production team includes: Jada Johnson (Assistant Director), Chris Chase (Stage Manager), Andrea Lauryn Wells-Preister (1st Assistant Stage Manager), Emma Grace Williams (2nd Assistant Stage Manager), Emily L. Willemse (Property Master), Alyssa Marie Gawel (Costumer Designer), Anthony Joini Toney (Assistant Costume Designer), Patrick David Field (Lighting Designer), Natalie Sarah Colony (Master Electrician & Sound Designer), and Dale Dorlin (Publicist).
“A Raisin in the Sun” runs at the Bonstelle Theatre, located at 3424 Woodward Avenue in Detroit, through February 21, 2016. Remaining performances are on Thursday at 10 a.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m. You can secure tickets for the entire Raisin Cycle, for only $25, here.