Greta Oglesby and Tosin Morohunfola in KCRep’s A RAISIN IN THE SUN. Photo By Cory Weaver.
Review: A RAISIN IN THE SUN at Kansas City Repertory Theatre
By Marie Warner
A RAISIN IN THE SUN is a classic American play and the Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s production is vital and moving. Based on the poem HARLEM by Langston Hughes, the play asks the question, “What happens to a dream deferred?”
Lorraine Hansberry was an African-American activist whose own experiences inspired elements of the play. When Hansberry was a child, her father purchased property in an all white neighborhood which had restrictive covenants in place to keep non-white residents out. The subsequent lawsuit Hansberry v. Lee went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court which ruled in the Hansberry family’s favor, although not completely negating the power of racially motivated restrictive covenants. The case was a milestone in the fight for fair housing.
Hansberry was an active participant in the civil rights movement, The Daughters of Bilitis, and wrote for the progressive African-American newspaper Freedom. She died from pancreatic cancer at the age of 34. Her life was cut short but her legacy as an artist and an activist continues to this day.
A RAISIN IN THE SUN is the story of the Youngers, an African-American family living on the south side of Chicago and their dreams for a better life. For Walter Lee Younger, his better life is one of wealth and status. For his wife, Ruth, it is a home to call her own. The matriarch of the family, Lena Younger, wants desperately to fulfill Walter Lee’s dream as well as to send his sister Beneatha to medical school. All their dreams seem possible with the advent of the $10,000 life insurance policy for the recently deceased Walter Sr. Tensions mount as Walter Lee pushes his mother to give him the money to invest in a liquor store with his friends Willy and Bobo.
Lena Younger makes the decision to use some of the money to buy a house for the family, in the all white area of Clybourne Park. She gives the rest of the money to Walter Lee to manage with the understanding that part of it will pay for Beneatha’s education. A representative from the Clybourne Park neighborhood association comes to notify them that the association would rather buy the Youngers new home for more than they paid than to have them move into the neighborhood. That for their own good, they should not move. The Youngers reject this proposal, but when Walter Lee’s grand plans are ruined, he must decide if he is willing to debase himself and his family and take the offer.
The performances are wonderful. Greta Oglesby as Lena Younger is the heart and soul of this production. She brings such humor and grace to the role, which makes her disappointment in the second act that much more heartbreaking. Tosin Morohunfola is excellent as the inspired and tortured Walter Lee. He takes us through ambition, disappointment, hope, devastation, and peace. Portraying a character who becomes completely undone is a daunting task, but Morhunfola is up to it. Lanise Antoine Shelley gives a strong performance as the long-suffering Ruth and brings an impressive physicality. Brianna Woods as ambitious Beneatha has many of the play’s funniest lines but also gives weight to Beneatha’s decision to assimilate or embrace her own heritage.
Co-Directors Chip Miller and Marissa Wolf have done a terrific job bringing this classic to the stage. With a run time of nearly three hours, this show could start to feel very slow, but strong pacing keeps the audience engaged. Antje Ellermann’s realistic set depicts the Younger home in great detail. The added realism of running water and steaming eggs give the actors even more to work with.
I wish that A RAISIN IN THE SUN didn’t still feel important. I wish the idea of institutional racism was so absurd that this play could only be produced as an historical exercise. Yet the community divides in Kansas City are so pronounced and so deeply rooted in racism, that it’s impossible to deny the necessity for this production. The histories of Troost Avenue and the Country Club Plaza are that of blockbusting, redlining, restrictive covenants, and segregation. The construction of 71 Highway cut through primarily African-American neighborhoods, driving down property values and effectively robbing African-American families of some of their greatest financial assets. For Kansas City, A RAISIN IN THE SUN serves as an heart-rending depiction of our legacy of prejudice, and a reminder that there is so much work to be done.