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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
A Raisin in the Sun

LenaShow me the strength. — Lena
S. Epatha Merkerson is Lena Younger and Francois Battiste is her son, Walter Lee
Lorraine Hansberry's 60-years-old A Raisin in the Sun bursts onto the Williamstown Theatre Festival's Main Stage with an energy that scorches the audience with the bitterness and++ frustration of an America where many of its citizens of African origin continue to battle for justice and equality.

This astonishing production explodes with ideals and frustrations as relevant as the day it was born. Hansberry's play enjoys new life as a modern call for the still unrealized Black American dream. This new production defies White America's complacent assumption about life in America for the still disenfranchised.

The play has enjoyed critical acclaim since its inception in 1959 with Sidney Poitier as the seething Walter Lee Younger. It was and continues to bre seen as an accurate portrayal of 1950s Southside Chicago where poverty and despair trap the Younger family in a seedy, overcrowded apartment. Their dead-end service jobs sustain the bare minimum of life. The shining hope is Beneatha, the feisty Younger sister who plans to be a doctor and the $10,000 insurance check that promises escape for all of them. It is the argument over the distribution of the money that releases the long pent-up feelings which drives the plot.

CurtainUp has reviewed this play innumerable times , including a 1999 production at Williamstown j, 2004 revival on Broadway with Sean Combs and the one with Denzel Washington in 2014. But Robert O'Hara's production blows the old interpretations of Hansberry's play out of our collective memory.

S. Epatha Merkerson as Lena, the matriarch, and the fifth generation to continue the struggle steps out from behind stereotypical portrayals. She is a loving mom but a tiger heart burns and erupts into a fiery yet controlled performance. No histrionics, just terrible inner pain as when she calls on God for strength. It is a remarkable and finely honed performance.

This family drama addresses the universal appeal of a parent trying to relate to children who have different expectations, and the arguments among the Youngers are just as volatile and familiar to any family caught up in conflicting dreams. O'Hara's direction of overlapping dialogue is often hilarious yet indicative of their need to be heard.

However, it remains the specific portrayal of Black Americans' inability to enjoy the same economic advantages as their white brethren that separates it from other 20th century plays concerned with family conflict.

O'Hara rocks the audience with the audacious Walter Lee Younger's (Francois Battiste) monologue in the second act. Instead of directing his emotions at his family, the actor plays directly to Williamstown's predominately white middle-aged audience as he riffs on the continued need for blacks in a white society to,“put on a show for the man, just what he wants to see.” The rage is palpable as the cast seems to challenge the 21st century: What's changed after 60 years of gerrymandering and voter suppression?

Merkerson's characterization of Lena is matched in power by Battiste whose Walter Lee is dynamic in revealing his anger and lifelong pain. He holds the stage on a par with Merkerson, imbuing the story with wrenching conflict. Nikiya Mathis is a rollicking Beneatha who's torn between her aspirations and the world she is living in. She has the choice of marrying the wealthy, yet shallow, George Murchison (Kyle Beltran) or Joseph Asagai (Joshua Echebiri) who wants to take her back to his native Nigeria. Asagai's monologue in Act ll still shines with Hansberry's prescient knowledge of Africa's political future. Walter Lee's long-suffering wife Ruth is sensitively played by Mandi Madsen as she watches her husband tear apart himself and their marriage.

The appearance of the dead Walter Lee Sr. as a brooding ghostly presence seems superfluous to this otherwise fine production. O'Hara needed to trust his audience's instincts in regard to this needless visualization. However, the story and performances are so riveting that this is a mere blip.

Joe Goldhammer's Karl Lindner is the perfect uptight white representative of the up-to-now, all white Clybourne Park. His tics and nervous posturing belie the real threat he represents to the Younger family's happiness.

In an often deleted but amusing scene, the nosy neighbor Mrs. Johnson (Eboni Flowers) is the other side of the equation in the attempts to keep Blacks in their place— snidely suggesting that the Youngers are too uppity for their own good she quotes Booker T. Washington and advises them to get realistic.

Costumes by Alice Tavener clearly delineate the status of each character except for Ruth's more upscale outfits which are a stark contrast to the apartment's peeling wallpaper and lack of family fortune. Are we meant to believe there is a quality thrift shop in their neighborhood or is she wearing the cast off clothing of her employers?

Clint Ramos's set is more than claustrophobic underlining the angst the Youngers have experienced throughout their lives. The atmospheric lighting by Alex Jainchill adds a dark texture behind Walter's act two monologue. Elisheba Ittoop has collected 1950's/'60's music for the several times music is heard in the apartment and to cover the scene changes, cementing the era of the play.

The final scene is brutal in its stark representation of a hope realized but with grave consequences. This conclusion along with other moments vests the play with a continued profundity.

This production of A Raisin in the Sun is not revolutionary, but it is a powerful, contemporary version of an important American classic.

Editor's Note: Robert O'Hara is a prolific playwright as well as a busy director. Curtainup reviewed his very first play Insurrection at the Public Theater. Other of his always buzz-creating plays we've reviewed include Barbecue and Booty Csnfy.

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A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry
Directed by Robert O'Hara
Cast: Francoise Battiste (Walter Lee Younger) Kyle Beltran (George Murchison) Joshua Echebiri (Joseph Asagai) Eboni Flowers (Mrs. Johnson) Joe Goldhammer (Karl Lindner) Mandi Masden (Ruth Younger) Nikiya Mathis (Beneatha Younger) S. Epatha Merkerson (Lena Younger) Warner Miller (Bobo) Owen Tabaka (Travis Younger) Savannah Dukes, Francisco Medina, Adrian Quinonez (Moving People)
Scenic Design: Clint Ramos
Lighting Design: Alex Jainchill
Costume Design: Alice Tavener
Sound Design: Elisheba Itioop
Dialect Coach: Barbara Rubin
Stage Manager: Stephen Ravet
Hair and Wigs Design: Elizabeth Printz
Co-Fight and Intimacy Coach: Claire Warden and Judi Lewis Ockler
Running Time: two hours-*forty-five minutes; one intermission
Williamstown Theatre Festival Main Stage, Williamstown, Massachusetts; Opening: 6/25/19; Closing 7/13/19
Reviewed by Gloria Miller at June 30th performance

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