Don’t Miss Center Stage’s “Raisin in the Sun”

Review by Howard Gradet
by Lorraine Hansberry
Directed by Marion McClinton
At Center Stage
through December 23rd
(Call 410-332-0033)

actors' picture
photo by Richard Anderson
AT CENTER STAGE: Linda Powell and Keith Glover are Ruth and Walter Lee Younger in “A Raisin in the Sun,” through Dec. 23.

Serious theater in the 1950s wasn’t cool. It was intense, it was passionate, it was angry. It wasn’t cool. And Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” is a great example of ’50s uncoolness. Hansberry’s story of the Younger family and their desire to make a better life for themselves has rightly become a modern American classic, what George Wolfe would identify as “the Original Mamma on the Couch Play.”

The play focuses on the Younger family, five people living in a two-bedroom apartment in Chicago. The hopes and dreams of each of the adults hang on the $10,000 life insurance check Lena Younger will receive after her husband’s death, the ticket out of the ghetto where children play with rats and roaches rule. Lena and her daughter-in-law, Ruth, both want to use part of the money as a down-payment on a house; Lena’s son, Walter Lee, wants it to start a business; Walter Lee’s sister Beneatha sees the money as her tuition to med school.

The play has spawned so many knock-offs in the last 40 years that you might expect the play itself to be a cliché. Wrong. “A Raisin in the Sun” is still a passionate, exciting work, and director Marion McClinton has deftly avoided the pitfalls. For one thing, I don’t think Mamma (played against type by Trezana Beverley) even once sits on the couch.

McClinton has assembled a primarily excellent cast. Although Linda Powell’s line readings in Act I lacked conviction (the character’s “just having awakened” doesn’t cut it), but her characterization grew in succeeding acts and she clearly showed us Ruth’s frustration as well as the double-edged love and anger she feels toward her husband.

Keith Glover imbues Walter Lee with all the pent-up frustration and untapped energy we have come to expect from him in the work he has done at Center Stage in “Two Trains Running” and “Thunder Knocking on the Door,” but oddly, although he easily expresses the unexpressible on his face and with his body, he frequently seemed unable to deliver his lines convincingly.
The second-act climax is the most powerful and authentically dramatic moment Center Stage has produced in years.

On the other hand, Tracie Thoms’ Beneatha was a near-perfect characterization. Thoms didn’t play the character, she was the character, whether she was arguing with her lover, playing around with her brother, dancing, or just sitting reacting to the others on stage. This was a masterful performance that rightly led to the standing ovation at the final curtain.

Trezana Beverley seems a physically uncomfortable choice for Lena, the matriarch of the Younger family. Maybe I’m just not ready for a peer to be playing the old lady roles, but Beverley has an energy and youth that undermine Lena’s quiet, centered presence. The role of Lena Younger is an opportunity to play multiple emotions simultaneously, preferably with as little outward show as possible, so that when she finally breaks at the end of Act II, her scream should crack your heart. Director McClinton has allowed Beverley too free a reign with her movements, so that this Lena is rarely still. Maybe not as frenetic as, say, Judy Garland might do it (now there’s an image!), but on the way.

Despite this, however, the second-act climax is the most powerful and authentically dramatic moment Center Stage has produced in years.

There are many plays out there, this one among them, that you’ve just seen so many times, you’ve read it in school, you’ve been in it, that you’re glad it’s there on a theoretical level, but would just as soon not ever have to see it again. If you choose not to see this production because it’s just so old that (“Raisin in the Sun”? oh, no, not again!), you will be missing something very, very good.

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This story was published on December 5, 2001.