Star turns you’d expect to see at the Pasadena Playhouse or the Geffen distinguish Ruskin Group Theatre’s 57th-anniversary revival of the New York Drama Critics Circle Award-winning A Raisin In The Sun, Lorraine Hansberry’s piercing look at racial discrimination, gender roles, family values, and burgeoning African-American identity—a modern American classic that remains as relevant today as it was in the pre-Civil Rights Era 1950s.
Blacks living north of the Mason-Dixon line may not have been victimized by Jim Crow-mandated segregation, but tell that to the Youngers—recently widowed matriarch Lena (Starletta DuPois), her 35-year-old chauffeur son Walter Lee (Redaric Willaims), Walter’s housekeeper wife Ruth (Angelle Brooks), the couple’s just-turned-teenager Travis (Jaden Martin), or Lena’s 20-year-old college student daughter Beneatha (Charlotte Williams)—forced by de facto discrimination to inhabit a roach-infected apartment worlds away from Chicago’s nearby all-white suburbs.
Fortunately for the Youngers, escape (or at least the possibility of upward social/financial mobility) may soon become reality thanks to a $10,000* life insurance check about to be dropped in Lena’s mailbox.
Walter sees Mama’s windfall as a means toward co-ownership of a neighborhood liquor store. Beneatha imagines how even some of that money could pay for medical school.
Lena, however, proposes buying her family a new place to live, and not one of “them houses they put up for colored in them areas way out [that] all seem to cost twice as much as other houses” but a home in all-white Clybourne Park.
Mama immediately nixes Walter’s plan, since no son of hers is going to own a liquor store, and while she is open to allotting some of the insurance money to pay for her granddaughter’s higher education, Benny’s two suitors—Nigerian student Asagai (Mohirah Hall) and well-to-do George (Kristian Kordula)—each think a wife’s place is in the kitchen.
Unlike Benny, Ruth would probably like nothing more than to devote herself to her husband and son’s needs, but she’s had to spend her life scrubbing white women’s floors. Unfortunately, she may no longer have the time or energy to do even that without breaking the law (and going against Lena’s deepest-held religious beliefs).
Times may have changed since A Raisin In The Sun became Broadway’s first play ever written by an African-American playwright and the first to be helmed by a black director, but not nearly enough to make the Hansberry classic seem even the smallest bit dated, just one reason why A Raisin In The Sun’s Ruskin Group revival proves such a gripping, eye-opening evening of theater.
Stage-and-screen great Starletta DuPois (Beneatha in her twenties and Ruth opposite Danny Glover and Esther Rolle in the 1980s) plays Lena to oceans-deep perfection under Lita Gaithers Owens’ incisive direction.
Young And The Restless NAACP Image Award nominee Williams’ soap-star gorgeousness is icing on the cake of a gut-wrenchingly complex performance as Walter Lee, and it’s hard to imagine any Broadway star (most recently Audra McDonald and Sophie Okonedo) playing Ruth with more emotional punch than the stunning Brooks.
Captivating CSUF grad Williams does Raisin’s playwright proud as Hansberry stand-in Beneatha, discovering options (and a revolutionary hairdo) her mother could scarcely have imagined; Hall and Kordula make striking impressions as the two very different men in Benny’s life; and Martin shows career promise as a boyishly spunky Travis.
Josh Drennen adeptly avoids cardboard villainy as Karl Lindner, a man uncomfortably out of his accustomed white-bread surroundings, and Jarard Kings scores too in a heartbreaking cameo as a bad-news-bearing Bobo.
Mike Reilly’s lighting design features some effective fade-outs and Chip Bolcik’s sound design adds to the production’s impact. Less successful is an uncredited, uninspired scenic design that deprives a chunk of the audience of even a limited view of one significant bedroom scene, and a more wash-worn look would give a number of Sarah Figoten Wilson’s 1950s costumes greater realism.
A Raisin In The Sun is produced by John Ruskin. Nicole Millar is stage manager and Sammy Anderson is assistant stage manager. Reilly is production manager. Additional program credits go to Eric Barron (builder, set dresser, props), Gina Williamson and Kate Kelly (crew, props), and Ryan Wilson (set builder).
Casting is by Paul Ruddy. Aaron Braxton, A.J. Davis, Garrett Michael Green, Tarina Pouncy, Kevin Ragsdale, Raquel Rosser, Tommy Ruff, Claude Sharpe, and Jewel Tompkins are understudies.
Whether you’ve seen Lorraine Hansberry’s masterpiece multiple times or are relishing the fresh thrill of discovery, Ruskin Group’s superbly acted revival is well worth an evening or afternoon at the Santa Monica Airport-adjacent intimate theater gem.
*$80,000 in today’s currency
Ruskin Group Theatre, 3000 Airport Avenue, Santa Monica.
July 30, 2016
Photos: Ed Krieger