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'A Raisin in the Sun' comes to Washington at Arena Stage

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The American dream seems elusive for some, but it doesn’t keep the Younger family from dreaming. “A Raisin in the Sun,” written by Lorraine Hansberry, was first performed in March 1959 on Broadway. The title comes from the poem "Harlem," also known as "A Dream Deferred," by Langston Hughes. The play is at Arena Stage for the first time.

The story follows the Younger family — Dawn Ursula as Ruth Younger, Will Cobbs as Walter Lee Younger, Jeremiah Hasty as Travis Younger, Joy Jones as Beneatha Younger and Lizan Mitchell as Lena Younger. The actors, especially Mitchell, who plays the family matriarch, give powerful performances showcasing the struggle of an African-American family trying to escape poverty.

Whose dreams get to be realized? Dreams shouldn’t depend on the death of a man, as stated in the play. Lena says, “Seems like God didn’t seem fit to give the black man nothing but dreams, but he did give us children to make them dreams seem worthwhile.”

The Younger family receives a check for $10,000, which is a life insurance payout following the death of Lena’s husband. The money belongs to her, but it doesn’t stop the rest of the family from dreaming of how they would use it. Lena wants a new house with a garden, and wants her daughter, Beneatha, to attend medical school.

Walter dreams of bettering his family’s life, but goes about it the wrong way by investing in a liquor store in a deal that goes awry.

Ruth wants to escape their cramped apartment, where her son’s bedroom is the living room couch. She finds herself pregnant with a second child and puts a down payment on an abortion, thinking they won’t be able to provide for another child. Lena begs Walter, Ruth’s husband, to be like his father, support his wife and convince her not to give in to abortion. Caught up in his own struggles, he doesn’t respond to her pleadings.

Beneatha has two suitors, George Murchison, played by Keith I. Royal Smith, who is the antithesis of her desire to embrace her African roots, and Joseph Asagai, played by Buekea Uwemdimo, a Nigerian who wants Beneatha to embrace her African heritage.  George is not impressed when she reveals her natural hairdo, calling her eccentric.

A powerful scene takes place between Beneatha and her mother. There is constant sibling tension tween Beneatha and her brother, Walter. After Lena buys a home in a whites-only neighborhood, there is $6,500 left. Walter is entrusted with the money, which includes Beneatha’s college fund. He loses the money and Beneatha tells Lena she no longer claims him as her brother after this selfish act. This doesn’t sit well with Lena.

“Child, when do you think is the time to love somebody the most?” Lena asked. “When they done good and made things easy for everybody? Well, that ain't the time at all. It's when he's at his lowest and can't believe in hisself 'cause the world done whipped him so.”

The round theater creates an atmosphere of eavesdropping on a private family conversation. The set is reminiscent of a 1950s Chicago apartment, with imagined roaches, patterned couches and a struggling plant on the kitchen counter. A black rotary phone sits on the end of the kitchen hutch.

In discussions about faith, Beneatha questions God’s role in their lives while Lena takes offense at her daughter’s lack of faith. Lena makes the daughter repeat, “In my mother’s house, there is still God.”

The show runs through May 7.


 Watch out for: Discussion of abortion, a racial slur and profanity. 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017