Sandbags remain stacked in front of the main entrance to The Actor’s Group’s theater, inside The Shops at Dole Cannery, a remnant of recent flooding. Inside, though, the newly renovated venue has been carefully transformed into the tidy Chicago apartment where the Younger family of “A Raisin in the Sun” faces the frustrations of their unfulfilled dreams.
The TAG facility suffered significant damage in September, when heavy rains caused high water to burst through their doors right before the season-opening show. But besides the protective wall, left behind as a precaution, the troupe appears to have picked up the pieces and overcome those hardships, by carrying on, and making another play. This choice, the classic work by Lorraine Hansberry, could not have been much better.
“A Raisin in the Sun,” continuing through Nov. 15, changed the theater business in many ways at its debut in 1959. It was the first Broadway play written by an African American woman, and Hansberry became the first black playwright, of either gender, and the youngest person, to win the best play award from the New York Drama Critics’ Circle.
A heavily autobiographical piece, the script addresses many social themes but revolves primarily around the issue of segregated housing. In the late 1930s, Hansberry’s family moved into a mostly homogenous neighborhood in Chicago and suffered tremendous harassment, which her parents became embroiled in, and fought for years in practical ways as well as in the court system.
In the play, the Younger family has lived for decades in a roach-infested South Side apartment, just waiting for an opportunity to change their fortunes. The title of the piece comes from a line in a Langston Hughes poem, about “Harlem,” in which he writes: “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?”
The 35-year-old protagonist, Walter Younger (played by Stacey Johnson), has missed his chances in the past, but this time, with the life insurance money coming from the death of his father, he wants to quit his chauffeur job, as a servant to a rich family, and open his own business, a liquor store. His religious mother, Lena, won’t support that idea and instead wants to spend the money on medical school expenses for Walter’s sister, and to make a down payment on a house, in a white neighborhood, where the family can own the floorboards and future Younger generations can raise their families.
Money, and the agency it provides, becomes a constant source of conflict in the household, as dreams are weighed and contrasted and given preference. There is only so much cash to go around. The Youngers have never had this amount of money before, and it’s unclear if they will get such an opportunity again any time soon.
TAG first produced “A Raisin in the Sun” a decade ago, in 2005, during its foundational period. The group established itself as a hub of serious dramatic productions, often focused upon African American issues, including a commitment to offer at least one black playwright’s work a year. While pragmatically, this approach has been focused on August Wilson’s Pittsburgh cycle, Hansberry’s piece enriches the program in familiar areas, and Della Graham reprises her Mama role of a decade ago, with depth and enthusiasm.
Because this stage is so intimately designed, and the actors are so close to the audience, the emotional effects of the climactic scenes almost are unavoidably intense. Yet, more notably, this cast finds many subtle and nonverbal ways to fill out the details of their characters in the quieter moments, making them seem more imminently real. Lillian Jones, for example, as Walter’s generally defeated wife Ruth, does not have many moments at center stage, but throughout, with an emphasis on body language, facial expressions, and careful attention to the meaning and delivery of her lines, she operates on a remarkably efficient and effective level, communicating her character’s thoughts and motivations with what seems to be the subtlest of gestures.
Each performer in this ensemble, under the direction of Brad Powell, gets a chance to carry the story at points, led primarily by the seasoned efforts of Johnson (Walter) and Graham (Mama). Considering where this company was just a month ago, with a water-deluged space and a struggling season-opening production, “A Raisin in the Sun” seems to turn around TAG’s fortunes, with an artistic triumph.
The play, of course, is time-tested and durable. The piece fits well within TAG’s niche. On a subtextual level, the script connects with many contemporary and local issues, including tensions caused by ethnic and cultural integration, social class divisions and the pursuit of affordable housing. Yet there also is something coming together here, something difficult to describe about what this group has put together. The cast has a charismatic chemistry. They are engaged in the material. They aren’t just acting out this script; they are living it, just a few feet in front of the audience.
What: “A Raisin in the Sun,” written by Lorraine Hansberry
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, through Nov. 15
Cost: Tickets range from $15 to $25
For more information: http://www.taghawaii.net/ or 808-722-6941
Directed by Brad Powell, with assistance from Carolyn Koehler; costume design by Chris Valles; set design by Brad Powell and Rick Crowell; light design by Thomas Tochiki; sound design by Richard, Karen and Ian Valasek; and stage management by Leo Goode Jr.
With: Lillian Jones (Ruth Younger), John Cudjoe (Travis Younger), Stacey Johnson (Walter Lee Younger), Katrina McIntosh (Beneatha Younger), Della Graham (Lena Younger, or Mama), Vontress Mitchell (Joseph Asagai), Joseph Kingsley (George Murchison), Barbara Jackson (Mrs. Johnson), Alan Picard (Karl Lindner), and Leo Goode Jr. (Bobo).