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Thursday, May 24, 2018
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Actress’s love, grit, holds together Stageworks' 'Raisin in the Sun'

When Lorraine Hansberry’s play, “A Raisin in the Sun,” became a Broadway hit in 1959, it was a beacon of the vast social changes about to be unleashed across America: The 1960s Civil Rights Movement; women’s empowerment; black pride; black identity.

Hansberry, the granddaughter of a freed slave, was in her 20s when her work debuted on Broadway, making her the youngest American as well as the first black playwright to win the New York Critics’ Circle Award.

She crafted a play throbbing with very real people dealing with very real issues.

For her title and her central question, Hansberry turned to a Langston Hughes poem: “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?”

In Stageworks’ vivid production, powerful Cassandra L. Small plays the matriarch of three generations of the Younger family living in a cramped, Chicago apartment. Small dominates the stage as well as the fictional Younger family as she decides how to spend a $10,000 insurance check, a windfall stemming from the death of her long-suffering, hard-working husband.

Should she devote it to the medical school education of her beautiful, intelligent daughter (whom, one suspects, is a stand-in for the beautiful, brilliant playwright herself)? Should she give it to her frustrated son who, tired of working as a chauffeur, wants to open a liquor store? Should she get what she has always dreamed of: her own house, a place in which to grow her garden and her family?

She puts a down payment on a house in a white neighborhood, only to have a representative from the neighborhood association visit the Youngers to tell them that blacks are not welcome. This stems from Hansberry’s own experience when her well-educated parents faced a similar situation.

Walter Lee, her frustrated son (Don Laurin Johnson) sums it up bitterly. “You all always tell me to see life like it is. Well … I figured it out … Mama, you know it’s all divided up. ... Between the takers and the ‘tooken’ … We … stay up nights trying to figure out ’bout the wrong and the right of things. ... And all the time, man, the takers is out there operating, just taking and taking.”

Director Ron Bobb-Semple has coached finely tuned performances from his entire ensemble. Everyone stays in character, even when the spotlight is not upon them.

As Walter Lee, Johnson is bursting with anger and frustrated pride at not being able to be his own man and a powerful provider. As the super smart daughter searching for her black identity, Brittney Necole Bellamy is funny, smart and sultry. Even her bumbling suitors (Robert Richards and Federico Gordon Jr.) bring moments of hilarity and eloquence. And Tia Jemison as Walter Lee’s wife brings tenderness and softness to the role. But it’s Small as the matriarch who holds the play together with love, grit and — perhaps — too much trust.

There are some issues: The first act seemed to move slowly, and at times, the actors could not be heard. But these problems can easily be cleared up.

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