Rep's "A Raisin in the Sun" an overwhelming love story
It may come as a surprise to people who have seen "A Raisin in the Sun" before, as I have, and it certainly came as a huge surprise to me.
But when I watched the play that opened at the Milwaukee Rep this weekend, I was stunned to figure out that it's a love story.
"A Raisin in the Sun" is generally regarded as one of the great American plays. Written by Lorraine Hansberry, it debuted on Broadway more than half a century ago in 1959.
It's an important play, dealing with race and gender roles and white hostilities. It is frightening how it resembles today and how short a distance we've moved from those days of housing covenants and separate and unequal facilities.
The stunning production at the Rep, directed with a fluid grace and pace by Ron OJ Parson, hits all the ebbs and flows of a story about a black family who buys a house in a white neighborhood. The slow and gentle build is there, the horrifying anger when things don't go as planned and the joy at the pride that wins out in the end.
But more than a social commentary, or at least in addition to it, the play is a love story.
There is a passionate and tumultuous love between Walter Lee Younger (Chike Johnson) and his wife, Ruth (Ericka Ratcliff). He wonders why she can't support his schemes and plans and feels abandoned by his wife. She wonders what's happened to a marriage once so full and lively and now so painfully difficult.
There is a longing love between Willie Lee's sister Beneatha (Mildred Marie Langford) and the world around her. Nothing seems off-limits to her love and curiosity about things that make people and their world tick. She learns horseback riding, guitar playing and African dancing with equal enthusiasm. It is Beneatha who is most striking in her opposition to assimilation.
Lena Younger (Greta Oglesby) is the mother of Willie Lee and Beneatha and the mother-in-law of Ruth, as well as the grandmother of Travis. It is Lena who inherits a large sum of money from a life insurance policy that belonged to her husband. Lena is the conscience of the family and her love for her children and grandchild are dignified examples of what happens when you trust those closest to you. Lena has trust.
And then there is the love each and every one of the characters has for a dream or a wish or an idea. These loves make these people tick.
Despite its reputation and focus, this is a very funny play. The audience laughed heartily and regularly at the family foibles of the Youngers. But you can almost feel the pace leading up to something far afield from humor.
And what we get, eventually, is a lingering painting of the life experience of black people in the United States. From the freedom of slavery to the stirrings of a search for roots and history, from an expansive sorrow over poverty and lack of opportunity to the joyous moments of forward momentum, Parson allows time for us to savor each step along the way.
The Milwaukee Rep opened its season with "Assassins," a play about the history of presidential assassination attempts. It closes its season with another dip into history. This time the history is of a uniquely American journey for black people and white people.
This journey is far from complete, but watching "A Raisin in the Sun" provides a sense of hope that we do have a chance, if we could just find the love that wraps the Younger family in its arms.
"A Raisin in the Sun" runs until April 14. Information is available at milwaukeerep.com.
Anything has got to be better than Assasins. That play was just not right. Well acted, but just not right. So far this season seems like a mis-step for the REP.
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