Review: ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ by Lorraine Hansberry at the Pittsburgh Public Theater

By Bob Hoover

Lorraine Hansberry’s legendary play about segregation in Chicago reached Broadway in 1959. Sixty-three years later, a Bloomberg News report concludes:

“About 400,000 Black Chicagoans have left the city since 1980, including many middle-class families driven away by the historic legacy of racist real estate practices that kept them from moving into certain neighborhoods. . .”

Little has changed since the fictional Younger family planned to leave its cramped apartment to a house in the also fictional Clybourne Park, a white Chicago neighborhood based on the place of Hansberry’s childhood home. As the door closed at the play’s end, it opened to years of racial violence in Chicago and nationwide as African-Americans sought better lives.

The Pittsburgh Public Theater bravely chose A Raisin in the Sun for its season opener on October 15th, when racial violence remains front and center. Directed by Timothy McCuen Piggee, who’s directed a number of regional theater productions, this Raisin overflows with emotion and despair with a sense of foreboding hanging over the Youngers led by widowed matriarch Lena, played by veteran E. Faye Butler.

She shares a South Side apartment with daughter Beneatha, son Walter, his wife Ruth, and their son Travis who must sleep on the living room sofa. A $10,000 life insurance windfall inspires Lena’s dream of owning a house with a garden while giving more space to her unhappy family.

Hansberry portrayed, perhaps for the first time on American stages, the effects of segregation on ordinary lives. Walter’s own dreams of success are crushed by prejudice, while Beneatha’s plans to become a physician flounder on her finances. Ruth is exhausted from working long hours as a maid for little money, and her marriage is threatened by Walter’s growing anger at his plight.

Joseph, a Nigerian medical student, and George, son of a well-to-do family, pursue Beneatha while her brother pursues a chance to own a liquor store. All their dreams are falling apart in the play’s second act from foolish choices and the arrival of Karl Linder, head of the Clybourne Park homeowners’ association, which is determined to block the Youngers from integrating the white neighborhood.

At nearly three hours, A Raisin in the Sun wanders through several dead-end subplots, repetitive speeches, and unanswered questions. Designed by Jennifer J. Zeyl, one of several production members from Artistic Director Marya Sea Kaminski’s former Seattle stomping grounds, the apartment isn’t cramped enough to focus the characters’ struggles.

And those struggles at times push the actors over the top, particularly Rico Parker as Walter. He grovels on the floor when his unwise efforts threaten the family’s future. 

Hope N. Anthony, on the staff of Attack Theater, as Beneatha, and Dedra D. Woods, active in Seattle’s arts scene, as Ruth, give uneven performances that make it tough to gauge their characters.

Butler, however, is solid as Mama Lena, the center of the play, whose sudden slap in Beneatha’s face is a shock. She proudly plays Hansberry’s symbol of endurance in the face of discrimination, even when the roof is crashing down.

Local stage veteran Ken Bolden plays the thankless role of Linder with a bumbling insincerity. Kevin Hillocks as the African student Joseph, is as sincere as Linder is not and with the understanding that he is Hansberry’s version of the wise outsider.

In keeping with the Public’s legacy of professionally polished productions, A Raisin in the Sun’s sound, lighting, costumes, and 1950s decorating touches were top-notch, but it was a rather muted opening night with only brief remarks by Kaminski.

A historical note: Raisin in the Sun was the first Broadway play written by a Black playwright. It was directed by Lloyd Richards, who went on to be a major force in American theater academically and as the mentor of August Wilson.

A Raisin in the Sun at the Public Theater runs through October 30th, for tickets visit: https://ppt.org/production/78751/list_performances

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