Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

July 2, 2019

REVIEW: Williamstown Theatre Festival, A Raisin in the Sun

Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, MA
through July 13, 2019
by Stuart W. Gamble

As playgoers exited the roundabout hallway at Williamstown’s production of A Raisin in the Sun, exclamations such as “Very powerful”, “Excellent”, and “Emotional” were heard after Sunday’s matinee performance. Lorraine Hansberry’s landmark play about an African-American family’s struggles, celebrates its 60th anniversary, since first premiering on Broadway in 1959. Many people (including this writer) fondly recall the 1961 film version featuring Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee and most of the original cast from its New York debut. WTF current production offers top-notch production values and sublime performances.

Set in the cramped Younger Family apartment in South Chicago, weary but steadfast Ruth Younger does her best to care for her 10-year-old son Travis and her husband Walter Lee. Beneatha, Walter’s sister, is a college student aspiring to be a doctor. Lena Younger, the family matriarch, rules the family with an iron-fisted yet tender firmness. The family of 5 is steeped in conflict both with each other and with the outside world. The catalyst to this already potentially explosive situation is the arrival of a life-insurance check for $10,000.00 from Lena’s late husband. Lena hopes to buy a home for the family. Walter hopes to buy a liquor store with his ne’er do well buddy Willie Harris, against the wishes of his wife, mother, and sister. What ensues is a drama filled with welcome humor, lasting nearly three hours, every minute of which is totally engrossing.

Hansberry’s characters are wonderfully complex and played beautifully by a fine cast. Francois Battiste as Walter, as written, is downright cruel to both his wife and sister, but his frustration is understandable as he toils away at being a chauffer and drinks excessively to shield his pain. He delivers, however, two of the play’s finest monologues about his dreams, to near perfection. S. Epatha Merkerson (fondly recalled as Det. Van Buren on Law & Order) wisely underplays her part as Mama, finally breaking down in a memorable scene with Walter. Her calmness is like a simmering volcano, waiting to erupt. Mandi Masden as Ruth is extremely touching in her efforts to hold her family together. Nikiya Mathis’ Beneatha is utterly phenomenal as the idealistic dreamer whose intellectualism eventually is shattered by the play’s close. Joshua Echebiri, as Beneatha’s Nigerian classmate/boyfriend Asagai, delivers a monologue about life that earned him an ovation.

As star Battiste is quoted in the play’s program: “There is not one issue in this play that isn’t still relevant today.” This point is without argument. Sexism, Racism, Generational Differences, are still with us. It is worth noting Director Robert O’Hara’s theatrical choices to an otherwise realistic play: the “ghost” character of Walter Sr. and a stunning epilogue that left the audience unsettled.