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Huntington Restages A Raisin in the Sun

Hansberry’s drama of race and class still resonates

When Lorraine Hansberry’s drama A Raisin in the Sun opened in 1959, it was the first play to depict the fortunes of a struggling African American family, the first play written by an African American woman to be staged on Broadway, and the first to be directed by an African American (Lloyd Richards).

The writer James Baldwin noted at the time that “never before, in the entire history of the American theater, has so much of the truth of black people’s lives been seen on the stage.”

A Raisin in the Sun opens with the Younger family waiting for a check for $10,000—an insurance payout following the death of family patriarch Big Walter. Each member of the family has different ambitions for the money. Son Walter Lee wants to use it to buy a liquor store so he can quit his job as a chauffeur. His sister, Beneatha, hopes that some of it will help finance her medical school education. For their mother, Lena, the money represents a chance to move her family out of a poor and overcrowded apartment and into a home of their own—even if it means buying in a white-only neighborhood.

Hansberry’s play is a probing exploration of race, class, prejudice, grief, and the enduring bond of family, themes that resonate with contemporary audiences more than 50 years after its debut. For that reason the Huntington Theatre Company decided to stage the play—again (the first production, starring Emmy-winner Esther Rolle, was in 1995). It’s one of only a handful of times the Huntington has restaged a show in 31 seasons.

LeRoy McClain as Walter Lee Younger, A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, Huntington Theatre Company

LeRoy McClain as Walter Lee Younger in A Raisin in the Sun.

“It’s a great American classic,” says Huntington artistic director Peter DuBois. “It can stand the test of time and still feel relevant, still connect with people emotionally as well as intellectually, and still feel worthwhile as a story we can tell today.”

DuBois says that he has wanted to stage a new production of Hansberry’s drama for some time, but it required finding a director who could breathe new life into it. When Liesl Tommy, who directed last year’s production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, by August Wilson (Hon.’96), became available, DuBois says, he knew he’d found the right one.

“Liesl was the person we wanted to entrust this play to,” he says. “She had done such a great job reimagining Ma Rainey, and we thought, oh, here is a really great play that’s ripe for reviving and reimagining. When you’ve got a director who has an interesting, unique point of view on something, you go for it.”

For her part, Tommy says she’s had several offers to direct A Raisin in the Sun in the past, but had always turned them down.

“I realize now that I was afraid of it,” she says. “It’s such a big play, it’s so powerful, and there’s a lot of it that really resonates for me personally. I think I just didn’t want to go there.” Tommy points to her own experience “growing up as an African in the apartheid years of Africa” by way of explanation. “I witnessed it, I lived it, I saw it in my own family and in friends’ families, and I saw the side effects of poverty and institutionalized racism play out in the home as well as outside.”

As to why she agreed to direct the play this time, Tommy says with a laugh, “They just wouldn’t take no for an answer.”

“They really wanted me to do it, and I trusted them,” she says. “When I direct a play, I torture the actors. I make everyone go everywhere because that’s how you get really potent performances. I thought, if ever I was really going to do it, it should be here, because I don’t like to do plays that feel like museum pieces. I want it to feel like we’re in 2013, like we’re coming at it with a contemporary eye. Otherwise, what’s the point?”

In the Huntington production, Kimberly Scott stars as matriarch Lena Younger. The production represents a personal homecoming for her. In 1986, as a graduate student at Brown University, she appeared as Molly Cunningham in Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. When the production transferred to Broadway, her performance earned a Tony Award nomination.

Ashley Everage as Ruth Younger, Corey Janvier as Travis Younger, Kimberly Scott as Lena Younger, A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, Huntington Theatre Company

Ashley Everage (from left) as Ruth Younger, Corey Janvier as Travis Younger, and Kimberly Scott as Lena Younger.

“Lena is not one of those black matriarchs in the American theater—she is the black matriarch in the American theater,” Scott says. The actress, who has no children of her own, says that the role has required her to step into “shoes that I’ve never worn before.” Throughout rehearsals, she made numerous calls to her own mother as she grappled with her performance, peppering her with questions like, “When you don’t understand your children, where does that leave you? How do you love your children through misunderstandings? How do you love them no matter what?”

Despite her familiarity with the play, Scott says, the Huntington production has been a revelation. “This is a family in grief,” she notes. “They have lost Big Walter. I had never really thought about that in a profound way before, and it really changes the play for me in a lot of ways. I think that it makes a lot of what goes on deeper and the consequences more far-reaching.”

Tommy, who has been nominated for a 2013 IRNE Award as best director for last year’s Ma Rainey, one of the production’s seven IRNE nominations, likens directing Hansberry’s play to “taking on a Greek tragedy, because so much happens and the stakes are so high and the situation is so desperate.” She admits to feeling a certain level of pressure in not wanting to let the playwright down.

“It’s one of the great American plays,” Tommy says. “It will never become irrelevant because it’s so well written and the relationships are so potent and it’s so real—it defies class and race, and any human being can relate to what’s happening on this stage.”

A Raisin In the Sun runs at the BU Theatre, 264 Huntington Ave., Boston, through April 7, 2013. Tickets may be purchased online, by phone at 617-266-0800, or in person at the BU Theatre box office. Patrons 35 and younger may purchase $25 tickets (ID required) for any production, and there is a $5 discount for seniors. Military personnel can purchase tickets for $15 and student rush tickets are also available for $15. Members of the BU community get $10 off (ID required) and are also eligible for a special subscribers discount rate. Follow the Huntington Theatre Company on Twitter at @huntington.

john o'rourke, editor, bu today
John O’Rourke

John O’Rourke can be reached at orourkej@bu.edu.

One Comment on Huntington Restages A Raisin in the Sun

  • Reggie Jean on 03.13.2013 at 5:01 pm

    Had the pleasure of seeing Esther Rolle in the play in 1995 and then the NY version of version with Phylicia Rashad and Sean “Puffy” Combs in NY three years ago. However I am really looking forward to taking 14 HS stuents in Boston University Upward Bound and Upward Bound Math Science to see it tomorrow night.

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