I went to Arena Players for the first time in a long time to see A Raisin in the Sun on a chilly Friday afternoon. Mind you, A Raisin in the Sun is an African-American classic. It has been played in countless theaters since its debut in the 1950s. Lorraine Hansberry was one of the first Black female playwrights to have a play on Broadway. So, no pressure Arena Players.
For those not familiar with the play (you should be ashamed if you aren’t cause this show is a modern classic), A Raisin in the Sun centers around the Younger family: Matriarch Lena Younger (Katrina Jones), her two grown children, Walter Lee (John P. Comer) and Beneatha “Bene” (Lauren Krystal Waters), Walter Lee’s wife Ruth (Nikki Scroggins) and their son Travis (Darion Orange). The Younger family live under one roof in a two bedroom, no bathroom apartment. The elder Walter Lee Sr. has recently died and the family anxiously awaits the insurance check. Each member has a plan for the money: Bene wants to use it to further her schooling to be a doctor, Walter Lee, a frustrated chauffeur for rich white people, has dreams of opening up a liquor store with his buddy Bobo (Don Murray), and Mama Lena wants her family in a nice home with a yard to plant her flowers. Mounting financial and relationship problems between the family members forces Mama Lena to advance her decision to put a down payment on a house in the all White Clybourne Park neighborhood. She hands the remainder of the money to her son Walter with explicit instructions. Meanwhile, wealthy college boy George Murchison (Joshua Dixon) and Nigerian exchange student Joseph Asagai (Quincy Vicks) vy for the heart and mind of young Bene. Of course the homeowners of Clybourne Park are not particularly keen to have a Black family move in and they send neighborhood association president Karl Lindner (Dave La Salle) to sit down with the Younger family and try to negotiate an alternative to their moving to Clybourne Park. Insert drama and bring to a simmer.
Ms. Hansberry packed a lot into this play. A Raisin in the Sun is dripping with so many emotional, political and social themes that it will make your head spin. But pay attention or you’ll miss the heart and soul of a family trying to survive. Race, class, money, and family. Rinse and repeat.
The acting in this production was authentic. I felt the actor’s pain and frustration. This was especially evident in Walter Lee, played by John P. Comer. He was best in the reflective moments when he was unsure of himself, stumbling and trying to be confident. Comer’s motivation to get angry at the world was there, but at times it wasn’t fully formed. It was in the quiet moments where Comer truly shined. Lauren Krystal Waters was so “extra” as Bene in a good way. Between her African dancing and her monologue about being a doctor, the actress showed her range well. Waters portrayed Bene with the perfect combination of sass, heart, energy and curiosity. She was both fun and endearing. The standout performance in this production was Ms. Katrina Jones as Lena Younger. She was a joy to watch onstage and her stage presence was palpable. She played the matriarch with grace, strength and a fiery intensity that pulled me into her performance. I could see Jones’ emotional journey and it was captivating. Although all of the performances were well executed, they were at times uneven and slow to build. Each lead actor had a spark of brilliance where the emotions were breathtaking and it was lovely to witness. However, these moments were followed by times when I could see them “acting.” I think some of this was opening night nerves and I’m sure it will even out with more performances under their belts.
Kudos to Director David D. Mitchell for establishing and solidifying the relationships between the characters in a real and fully formed way. I especially enjoyed the married couple “back and forth” between Walter Lee (John P. Comer) and Ruth (Nikki Scroggins). I’m a married BITR Sister and I appreciated their candor and Ms. Scoggins strength and “hold the family together” sensibility. The chemistry between Asagai (Quincy Vicks) and Bene (Lauren Krystal Waters) was electric and the mother/daughter-in-law interactions between Lena (Katrina Jones) and Ruth were sweet. The staging was dynamic and engaging, although the pacing was a little slow. Act 1 was well over an hour.
Most of the technical elements supported the production. The set told the story and looked exactly like what I would have pictured the Younger house to look like. The small Arena Players stage was a perfect fit for the cramped Younger quarters separated into a small kitchen and living room with doors denoting bedrooms and a front door. The tattled wallpaper, the mismatched tables and chairs, the depressed couch and the well cared for yet aging blankets and china, were all period appropriate and fit the world beautifully. The cast and stage manager Victoria Jackson held it together for period costume pieces. The clothing was colorful and character specific with simple patterned dresses for the ladies and suit and ties for the men. I especially loved the African pieces and evening attire worn by Bene. I’m a lighting girl, and the lighting by Charlene Williamson was somewhat one-dimensional. I wanted to see more nuance other than all on or all off especially during the emotional sections of the script. I did enjoy the warm lighting during the transition between scenes. The upstage (or back of the stage for the non-theater inclined) portion of the stage was not well lit especially when the actors were close to the doors. This threw me out of the story and I wish it hadn’t.
Lastly, the music between the scene transitions to show passage of time was a nice touch; however the music during Walter Lee’s monologue in Act 2 was a bit jarring. I didn’t understand the directorial choice to have swelling music underscore the dialogue about a man listlessly wondering around and feeling unmotivated. I felt like it took me out of the story and into a Lifetime movie. It would have been more compelling to just see him with just his words and moments of silence.
Lorraine Hansberry knew how to use words. Quotes like these stay with you: “Something always told me I ain’t no rich white lady”, “Colored man nothing but dreams”, “Never be afraid to sit awhile and think”, and “I didnt make this world, this world was given to me.” All of these speak to the frustration, joy, anger and conflict that Black people feel when they are trapped in their station even though they want to move past it desperately. This play is about being frustrated, stifled and unable to advance toward your dreams. That feeling of being stuck inside of yourself. Money could change that feeling right? Money equals access and power. “Money is life.” Or is it? Discovering who you want to be and moving toward that is something that is essentially human. But knowing when to give up your dream for the greater good, coming into your own and realizing that family is the most important, are the key elements of this play.
Should I stay or should I go? Go see this play because Arena players is doing great work and A Raisin in the Sun is a classic. This is the third time I’ve said this so I hope you are listening. See this show if you like emotional dramas that are mirrors to society. Themes of race, class, access and money are still factors in our lives today as much as they were when this play was written. See this show if you read it in High School English class because it is so much better on stage. The acting in this production was authentic and emotionally charged and the dynamic relationships were stellar. A quality night at the theater. Support art by Black female playwrights. And if you like this, check out other plays by Black female playwrights happening in Baltimore right now in October and November. They have a voice and stories to tell. We should listen to them. Trust me.
Now playing through October 28th at Arena Players Inc. Running time: about two and a half hours with an intermission.